A documentary about the evolution of the depiction of First Nations people in film, from the silent era to today. Featuring clips from hundreds of films, candid interviews with famous Native and non-Native directors, writers and actors, Reel Injun traces how the image of First Nations people in cinema have influenced the understanding and misunderstanding of their culture and history. Written by
This native-directed documentary about Hollywood portrayals of First Nations through the years is appealing, good-humored, and watchable, and will be a valuable educational tool. However, it would have been more valuable (and may be yet; this screening was apparently not the final cut) if its various flaws were addressed. There is a sense throughout of the film biting off more than it can chew. The "journey" framing device - in which Diamond heads out on the road to visit various real-life locations of cinematic lore - works case-by-case, but there's no through line and Diamond isn't on screen enough to establish a presence. While one sees the need to address on screen portrayals' relationship to the realities of early colonialism, 70s AIM activism, macho Indian-themed summer camps etc, these byways reduce the space for the central discussion of the movies themselves. Instead things drift toward pat decade-indexed generalizations, so that in the 70s Billy Jack leads directly to Wounded Knee - quite a stretch! While one can readily understand that native viewers don't much like John Ford westerns, presenting the racist cowboy of The Searchers as a direct expression of the filmmakers' attitudes is asking for trouble. And if you're going to show Little Big Man to an elementary school audience to gauge their reaction, then SHOW US the damn reaction! The best talkers of the film are activist John Trudell and comic Charlie Hill, but as insightful as they are, the native stunt man and costume designer do a better service to the movie's themes. (And please spare me the Robbie Robertson star turn!) And in the end everyone lives happily ever after in rose-colored Celluloid Closet style. All that said, though, the film also reveals the existence of a self-portraying Native cinema in the silent era, translates some hilarious Lakota profanity from a vintage western, and highlights the tragedy of the secretly triracial early movie star Buffalo Child Long Lance, among other revelations. Its moments of insight earn it a more than passing grade in spite of its failings.
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