On Sept. 24, students flocked to the first film of the 11th Annual Theater, Film, and Media Studies (TFMS) Film Series, Cree Filmmaker Neil Diamond’s 2009 documentary “Reel Injun.” Following an introduction from TFMS Film Series coordinator Mark A. Rhoda, PhD, Diamond came to the stage and gave an anecdote about growing up and how he began to love films.
“We didn’t have TV until I was about 16. We didn’t have electricity or running water. But we had a community hall in the church basement and we’d watch movies. The whole community would come and watch western movies, action movies, mysteries, Elvis movies, anything,” Diamond told the crowd.
In Reel Injun, Diamond discusses the ways in which Hollywood has reflected and constructed society’s perceptions of Native American people throughout history. The film features interviews from indigenous activists Russell Means and John Trudell, as well as actors such as Adam Beach, Jim Jarmusch and Clint Eastwood. The film is very heavily comprised of segments from films and television shows that have portrayed indigenous people in both negative and positive lights.
The film traverses through history, beginning at the silent film era, which began during a time when indigenous people were still very visible. Many films from this era included native people, whose practices and lives were documented by the first moving pictures. Although there was a certain level of cultural exhibitionism to these films, they also used real Native American actors, traditions,
A segment of the film focused on the portrayal of Native Americans as noble warriors, who were “free” from societal bounds. A particularly cringeworthy part of the film shows Diamond visiting a summer camp with, teaching its majority-Caucasian campers how to “live like Indians.” One scene shows the children yelling and banging on tables (as part of the “Indian way”) as a disgruntled Diamond watches.
Another segment, entitled “The Only Good Injun is a Dead Injun,” looks at one of the most infamous periods of films about Natives. Starting during the Great Depression, films began to show Native Americans as “savages” who had to be fought by “true Americans” — white Americans, like John Wayne, who had come to colonize North America. Scenes from these films showed white American cowboys — and Bugs Bunny– violently killing natives, drawing strong emotional reactions from the crowd.
The film describes several pivotal moments in history for indigenous filmmakers and indigenous rights, such as the 1973 Wounded Knee incident, where the American Indian Movement (AIM) stood off against the United States government in Wounded Knee, South Dakota. This incident helped to change public opinion on the AIM and Native Americans in general, and brought Native American activists much-needed media attention.
During the 45th Academy Awards in 1973, Actor Marlon Brando asked Sacheen Littlefeather, an Apache actress, to speak on his behalf and decline his Academy Award for “The Godfather”. This moment is seen as a triggering moment for public perception of Native Americans, as well as the beginning of a change of the way Native Americans were portrayed in films.
The film concludes by showing the “renaissance” of films about indigenous people. Films in the 1990s, beginning with the popularity of “Dances with Wolves” took a more sympathetic approach to indigenous people. This generation of films was by no means perfect, but showed a growing interest in learning about the culture and lives of indigenous people.
The film concludes with Diamond traveling to Iglooik, Northern Canada, to interview Inuk filmmaker Zacharias Kunuk, the director of the award winning Inuk film “The Fast Runner” (2001).
During the following Q&A session, Diamond mentioned that Reel Injun is part of a series of documentary films about the role of indigenous people in popular media, including 2017’s “Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World”, about the role of indigenous people in the music industry.
The TFMS Film series will continue on October 15th in Cole Cinema, with a screening of short films hosted by Anishinaabe filmmaker Lisa Jackson. To be included are films by Algonquin filmmaker Caroline Monnet, Ladino filmmaker Teresa Jiménez, Edgar Sajcabún, Juan Manuel Costa, and Lisa Jackson herself.