Reel Injun

Neil Diamond’s Reel Injun
Saturday, April 10 at 7:00PM
Sunday, April 11 at 7:00PM
Winnipeg Cinematheque

For decades, Aboriginal people were frequently misrepresented in Hollywood films, but these depictions were almost always deeply negative and wildly inaccurate. Director Diamond takes us on a highly entertaining road journey in which he interviews a broad range of Native actors, directors, writers, journalists and stand up comics as they discuss how these negative representations affected their own self image and how key positive images inspired them. Adam Beach and Clint Eastwood talk about Beach’s critically acclaimed performance as an alcoholic war veteran in Flags of Our Fathers. Wes Studi, one of the busiest Aboriginal actors in America, discusses the landmark casting of Chief Dan George in Little Big Man. Reel Injun also features a revealing interview with Sacheen Littlefeather, the native actress who attended the Academy award ceremony in 1973 on behalf of Marlon Brando who declined his award to protest discrimination against Aboriginal people in the film industry. (Toronto International Film Festival)

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From Uptown Magazine April 8, 2010:

Unlearning what we’ve learned from the movies
Reel Injun traces 20th-century perceptions of Aboriginal people to their cinematic roots

Who’d have thought one of the most shocking moments I’ve ever witnessed in a film would involve Bugs Bunny?

The documentary Reel Injun features a bit from one of the most grotesquely racist Looney Tunes ever — even worse than Bugs Bunny Slaps the Japs. Bugs is cast in the guise of Davey Crockett, firing away at Indian marauders attacking a fort.

“One little, two little, three little Indians!” Bugs sings with a smile as he fires away, tallying up his count on the blackboard beside him. “Ooops!” he corrects himself, erasing half of one tally. “That one was a half breed.”

Jesus. Seeing such attitudes displayed so cheerfully, without a hint of irony, is truly bracing. It’s reassuring to think that times have indeed changed — this sort of thing would be inconceivable in popular culture today.

(On the other hand, I remember hearing as a kid — from a friend’s father no less — the one about 1,000 Indians at the bottom of a lake. So let’s not overestimate the breadth of positive change, either.)

What Reel Injun does is trace popular 20th-century perceptions of Native Americans, as seen through the prism of their cinematic representation. Movies, this doc argues, have been instrumental in fashioning the image of the American Indian.

The film is built around relevant cinematic footage, as well as interviews with various critics, filmmakers, and performers — both of Aboriginal heritage and not.

We hear from the likes of director Chris Ayre (Smoke Signals, Skins) and actor Adam Beach, as well as Hollywood titans such as Clint Eastwood.

The documentary shows, as is so often the case with history, how unexpected the real story often is. We’re told, for instance, that in the early days of cinema, Native peoples were often representing themselves by making and performing in their own films.

It was the Depression that changed everything. In hard times, audiences were more inclined towards the image of the bloodthirsty savage, as in John Ford’s 1939 film Stagecoach.

One need only look at the blatant racism coming out of the Tea Party movement to see how hard times can reveal the skull beneath the skin.

Not all cinematic depictions have been negative. Nonetheless, even the images of the noble savage and stoic warrior have resulted in a kind of dehumanization: the reduction of entire peoples into idealized symbols and icons rather than human beings.

Yet Native people in the movies still managed to assert their humanity — often mischievously. We see this in one of the doc’s best moments: the subtitling of a classic Western scene involving Union officers and a generic movie Indian chief. What the off-script Native actor actually says in his own language, I will leave you to be delighted by.

The encouraging thing is Native filmmakers have come full circle, back to cinema’s early days. Once again, they are making their own films to tell their own stories. There are great movies to be counted among these. And for their authors, they finally afford the chance to just be themselves.

– Kenton Smith

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~ by cineflyer on April 6, 2010.

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