Reel Injun: On the Trail of the Hollywood Indian

Nov 15th, 2010 | By | Category: 22-2: Crossing Borders, Winter 2010, Media Reviews

Rezolution Pictures, National Film Board of Canada (2009) 85 minutes

Review by Kurt Umbhau

In the film, Reel Injun, filmmaker Neil Diamond (Cree) drives his rez car on a cross-country tour researching the origins and evolution of how American Indians are depicted in Hollywood films.

The documentary includes several clips from John Wayne’s Westerns that depict Indians as violent savages in need of either salvation or extermination. Diamond balances negative, early-Hollywood Indian stereotypes with progressive films, such as The Fast Runner. He interviews the director of that film, Zacharias Kunuk, in the remote Canadian Nunavut town of Igloolik (population: 1,500). Kunuk is considered a visionary in historically accurate Native cinema.

Diamond approaches the Hollywood depiction of Indian stereotypes with intelligence and humor. He shows white actors getting spray-painted red and looking nothing short of ridiculous. He takes the potentially caustic subject of race and pursues a curious rather than angry tone. He interviews Clint Eastwood, who recalls a past director asking to see a “real” Indian on the set. Eastwood remembers with a smirk that there wasn’t a single Native on the set of a Western featuring cowboys and Indians.

Diamond also interviews activist Russell Means (Oglala Lakota), who points out that for him, Dances with Wolves was an offensive white man’s movie that glorified Kevin Costner’s character. That the Lakota Sioux needed a white man to motivate them for war, Means asserted, was a preposterous idea that perpetuated colonial values. Reel Injun is a worthwhile watch for the historical clips as well as the interviews with Robbie Robertson (Mohawk), Wes Studi (Cherokee), Graham Greene (Oneida), Adam Beach (Saulteaux), and activist John Trudell (Santee Sioux) as well as other film critics and scholars.

Kurt Umbhau is a former editor of TCJ now living in New York City.

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