For most of the 20th century, the Western was the most durable of genres; there could be no Cowboys without Indians. But much of that film history is one in which Native Americans were rarely accurately portrayed by an industry trading on negative stereotypes. Filmmaker Neil Diamond—a Cree from Quebec, not the singer from Coney Island—and his co-directors Catherine Bainbridge and Jeremiah Hayes offer a survey of that history and much more in Reel Injun. Appealing mainly to film history and Western buffs, its box office potential is limited, but the documentary should enjoy a healthy afterlife on television and DVD.
The film's stroke of genius is to frame it as a travelogue with Diamond as the amiable host who zigzags across North America in a gas-guzzler he affectionately refers to as a "rez" car. Diamond goes everywhere, from the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota to Hollywood to Monument Valley. In a scant 85 minutes, he cuts a wide swath, touching on American history, focusing particularly on Crazy Horse and the Plains tribes in the 19th century and the American Indian Movement in the 1960s and ’70s. He traces the evolution of indigenous tribes in the movies, from the silent era when portrayals were more balanced, to the early talkies where the image of the bloodthirsty savage became set, to the late ’60s and beyond when the image changed again. He brings it up to date to Hollywood films, such as Clint Eastwood's Flags of Our Fathers, which create more rounded characters, and indie films, such as Zacharias Kunuk's The Fast Runner (Atanarjuat) which give voice to indigenous filmmakers.
Diamond has assembled an impressive roster of commentators, including activists turned actors Russell Means and John Trudell; actors Adam Beach, Wes Studi and Graham Greene; stuntman Ron Rondeaux; film critic Jesse Wente, a programmer at the Toronto International Film Festival (where Reel Injun made its world premiere); Robert Tree Cody, son of Iron Eyes Cody, an Italian American who so identified with his adopted persona that his son celebrates his father as a Native American; musician Robbie Robertson; and filmmakers Clint Eastwood, Zacharias Kunuk, Jim Jarmusch and Chris Eyre. Activist Sacheen Littlefeather recalls her 1973 Oscar appearance, when Marlon Brando asked her to decline his Best Actor award for The Godfather and speak in support of the American Indian Movement activists engaged in a stand-off against the FBI at Wounded Knee. Littlefeather remembers that John Wayne had to be held back from attacking her, while Means recalls the morale boost her actions gave the protesters at Wounded Knee.
Reel Injun moves at a fast clip and never wears out its welcome. It is not an exhaustive documentary. There are gaps here and there, but it provides a fascinating introduction to a corner of film history that has gotten too little attention.
Distributor: National Film Board of Canada
Cast: Neil Diamond, Adam Beach, Wes Studi, Graham Greene, John Trudell, Sacheen Littlefeather, Clint Eastwood and Russell Means
Directors/Screenwriters: Neil Diamond and Catherine Bainbridge and Jeremiah Hayes
Producer: Catherine Bainbridge, Christina Fon and Linda Ludwick
Running time: 85 min.
Release date: February 19 Toronto/Vancouver