Preview: "Reel Injun" and the new image of Native American films

Posted by Taylor Pangman on November 17, 2014 · 5 mins read

With few exceptions, American cinema has been responsible for projecting an inaccurate and an inadequate representation of Native Americans in film.

The documentary Reel Injun, which you can watch on Netflix by either purchasing a Netflix account or by borrowing the user name and password from a friend like me — I will include mine in the bottom of this article… Sike! But it really could be that communal, hence recent changes at HBO — criticizes how an inaccurate and inadequate global understanding of Native Americans has been created and perpetuated by American cinema.

There is a political reason for this. If we think of the dualism that exists between the American government and the American people as a relationship of action and reflection, respectively, then we might say that the American government celebrates the dehumanized image of Native Americans that is created and perpetuated in American cinema as a way to justify the genocide of Native peoples by American settlers, whereas this same image of Native Americans is embraced by American citizens as a way to cope with said genocide. Whatever the motivation, Americans have consumed and re-consumed the mythologized Native American throughout the 20th century and beyond, in varying forms.

The difficulty with how Native Americans are represented by American cinema is separate from whether American cinema represents them favorably or unfavorably; the problem resides in the dehumanization of Native Americans in the films, and in turn, how the audience comes away thinking of these people. Western cameras have been notoriously bad at reflecting images of complete Native American characters; the Native American characters that are produced by and for the Western lens are not representations of human beings struggling with any sort of emotional complexity. Usually, they are either savage beasts or wise mystics. And so they fall into a binary that is familiar to all mythological universes: the binary of and between good and evil. Native Americans become either friend or foe, angel or demon, wise-man or head scalper.

In American cinema, they can not be indifferent to the dramas of the western hero. They must be either for or against him. Historically, Native Americans and American settlers are bound in a particular time by cultural genocide. Mythologically, their fates can never be separated: we know the one by his difference from the other.

The goal at The High Screen for the month of November is to explore the representation of Native Americans in American cinema. If we wanted to, we could travel down the beaten trail of The Outlaw Josie Wales, to Dances with Wolves, and stop at every latrine therein between. But, Reel Injun, has already done all of that with superior grace and insight. Instead, in so far as the term Native American was applied to a cultural group of human beings who never would have called themselves such sounds without having first been marked and beaten by this imperial stamp, let us apply the term Native American to all people and characters whose identities have been reduced by American cinema.

Let us move forward on the assumption that it is the effect of much of mainstream Hollywood to fill our screens with emotionally and intellectually shallow characters, ideas, and plots; plot, being only a feature of narrative, has come, however, to stand for narrative in many Hollywood films.

Reel Injun ends with a too brief examination of what they call “Aboriginal cinema,” which depicts Native Americans through a Native American lens. This is to say that the director and many of the actors of these films are Native Americans telling culturally relevant and accurate stories.

Let us then call all films that (a) provide us with characters who are rich in emotional complexity, (b) that ask us to be reflective and (c) which foster a sense of communion over the struggle that is existence without downplaying that struggle or making a melodramatic spectacle of it — let us call these films Native American films. Let us celebrate the films that find a way to put a human being on the screen.