Culture  The myth of the movie red man

Cree filmmaker Neil Diamond’s Reel Injun takes an incisive look at 100 years of misrepresentation

“I am an Injun, a Cree filmmaker who grew up in one of the most isolated native communities on earth.” These are the opening words from the Reel Injun, Neil Diamond’s documentary film about the portrayal of native peoples in Hollywood cinema.

To make the film, Diamond headed south and travelled across America to take a closer look at some of the movies he watched as a kid. “Raised on cowboys and Indians, we cheered for the cowboys,” he says in the film, noting that the movies of the time led him to adopt a skewed sense of his own identity. Using interviews and plenty of archival footage, Reel Injun compiles and comments on films from the past 100 years that feature native people.

In the early days of cinema, Hollywood portrayals of native people tended to be noble, peaceful, and free-spirited. But in the ’30s, native characters were transformed into brutal savages. Diamond argues that the sudden reversal of native representations permanently affected how the rest of the world would view native people. Dozens of Westerns play on the same stereotypical battle of American heroes fighting bloodthirsty Indians. It is these images, shot on the American plains and popularized by directors like John Ford, which solidified peoples’ impressions of native people.

Of the 4,000 movies Hollywood produced about native people, Diamond chooses to concentrate on Stagecoach – the film he believes started it all. Its star, John Wayne, is considered to be one of the greatest action heroes of all time. He’s outlandishly violent, but in Stagecoach his actions are justified. He’s fighting Indians.

Even more problematic is that many films had actors imitate native people and their languages, instead of trying to understand them. Directors would cast white actors to play native roles, creating a thin illusion through red face. And occasionally, rather than having actors speak in native languages, they would simply run English backward. Inspired by these Hollywood portrayals, young children continue to engage in the same imitation process at summer camps across the continent.

Native people find such portrayals laughable. “White people playing native roles?” asks filmmaker Chris Eyre. “I love it. Because it’s funny.” John Trudell, who is a celebrated poet, actor, and artist of Sioux origin, agrees, saying, “What has kept us alive is humour.”

When the Western went out of style in the ’60s, native people began to fight back against the federal government and the filmmakers who continued to spread negative stereotypes. At the Academy Awards in 1973, Marlon Brando famously declined his Oscar for Best Actor – earned for his performance in The Godfather – offering the podium to native activist Sasheen Littlefeather instead. Littlefeather announced that Brando “very regretfully cannot accept this very generous award…the reason for this being the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry.” This event, which attracted a lot of media attention, helped raise awareness not only for the negative representations of native people in film, but also the native peoples’ movement as a whole.

Throughout the film, Diamond argues that the best depictions of native people or Inuit come straight from native communities. “The answers were here all along,” he affirms. Ending his journey in the Canadian North, he points to Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner) as a sign of progress. Released in 2001, the film was the first of its kind – a feature written, directed, acted, and produced by Inuit, about Inuit. Diamond talks with director Zacharias Kunuk, who says of the film, “I see it as taking back the stories that we used to hear when we were children.”

Reel Injun aims to not only expose the native stereotypes present in the past 100 years of film history, but convince viewers that a new age of cinema is emerging. “The movies made in the North are incredibly special. They’re finally an aboriginal cinema that isn’t someone else’s.” Reel Injun educates while it entertains, scoping a century of film, and analyzing the presence of native people in Hollywood films.  
Reel Injun is playing at Cinéma du Parc (3575 Parc).