Friday, June 18, 2010

REEL INJUN: Film about portrayals of American Indians in movies

There's been a lot of buzz amongst friends and colleagues about the film Reel Injun. The title itself says a lot. "Reel" ---a reel of film---and "Injun"---a derogatory word for Indian---but the title also points to what is missing from film and from children's and young adult literature: real Indians.

Saying the phrase, "real Indians", makes me cringe. First, it is the year 2010, and we---people who are American Indian---encounter people who think we were all wiped out by enemy tribes, disease, or war.  Or, people who think that in order to be "real Indians" we have to live our lives the same ways our ancestors did. Course, they don't expect their own identities and lives to look like those of their own ancestors... In principle, we are a lot like anyone else. We have ways of thinking about the world and ways of being in that world (spiritually and materially) that were--and are---handed down from one generation to the next. Though we wear jeans and athletic shoes (or business suits and dress shoes), we also maintain clothing we sometimes wear for spiritual and religious purposes. Just like any cultural group, anywhere.

Second reason "real Indians" makes me cringe is the word "Indians". We use it. In fact, I use it in the title of this blog. But I know it references all the indigenous nations and tribes and bands and communities and pueblos in the United States, all with unique ways of doing things.

That said, I want to talk more specifically about the trailer.

Watch Clint Eastwood say he wanted real Indians but couldn't find one. I wonder where he looked?

Watch Cheyenne/Arapaho filmmaker Chris Eyre say it is funny to watch white people playing Native roles. The trailer shows a series of them: Anthony Quinn, Burt Lancaster, Charles Bronson, Daniel Day Lewis, Chuck Connors, Burt Reynolds, Boris Karloff, Sylvester Stallone, and, William Shatner...  All of them playing tough, savage, or tragic Indians. Watching them do it, as someone who is Native, can be hilarious, but only if you know more about who we are.

Filmmaker Jim Marmusch Jarmusch notes that John Wayne signals a moral standard of what it means to be American. His remark is followed by a clip from one of John Wayne's movies, where he is shown kicking someone. That clip may be from The Searchers, a film hailed by many as a critique of racism.

Then there's a critique of Dances With Wolves....

Though I've not had the opportunity to see the film, I love what I see in the trailer, and I think anyone who works with children's literature ought to see it! I think it holds great promise for helping critique portrayals of American Indians in the books we give to children.

Visit the website for Reel Injun and find out when and where you can see it.


equa yona(Big Bear) said...

Minor point here, Daniel Day-Lewis is not playing an Indian. he is playing Natty Bumpo, a white guy raised by Chingachgook.
As far as what Eastwood is saying, that is a snippet out of context. He is a very consistent artist with a lot of integrity so I think it best not to judge by a trailer.

tva said...

Hi Debbie -

The independent filmmaker you quote who appears right before the John Wayne clip is named Jim Jarmusch.



Matt Sakiestewa Gilbert said...

Big Bear,

Perhaps I am misunderstanding what you are saying, but are you suggesting that Debbie has taken the Eastwood quote out of context? Debbie's question: "I wonder where he looked?" seems fair enough to me. Also, it's quite clear in the post that Debbie is enthusiastic about the trailer and the film and recommends that her readers see it.


equa yona(Big Bear) said...

Matt, no, the nature of a trailer is to present bits out of context. Debbie is responding to a trailer, the quote was taken out of context for all of us to make a point. I am looking forward to seeing the film and seeing if he has more to say about this.

Matt Sakiestewa Gilbert said...

Big Bear, thanks for the clarification. I am also looking forward to seeing the film. Eastwood's quote has us all wondering and wanting to hear in that way the trailer did exactly what it was supposed to do! Thanks again.

Debbie Reese said...

Thanks, TVA, for pointing out the typo. I've fixed it.

And thank you, equa yona (Big Bear), for your comments.

What language, by the way, is 'equa yona'?

VJ said...

Thanks for the heads up! Looks like an interesting picture.

FWIW, I concur with your assessment that the clip directly after Jarmusch's talking head is likely from The Searchers.