Saturday, August 18, 2012

Reel Injun

In the documentary  Reel Injun, filmmaker Neil Diamond (really!) tells how, growing up in the Cree village of Waskaganish, Quebec, he and the other native kids would play cowboys and Indians after seeing the westerns that were shown (in the basement of a church) there. And everybody wanted to be a cowboy (since the Indians always lose).  Reel Injun explores the portrayal of the American Indian in Hollywood films. Diamond journeys from the arctic north in Canada and goes across the U.S. interviewing various natives and visiting crucial locations, from Monument Valley to Wounded Knee. In one section there's a photo montage where they show all these non-natives that played Indians, including Chuck Connors, Charles Bronson and Burt Reynolds.

The still of Reynolds is of course from Sergio Corbucci's spaghetti western Navajo Joe, in which the titular native character is an underdog hero. Reynolds is in fact part Cherokee interestingly enough. Regardless, the absurdity of the stereotypes revealed throughout the film is amusing, enlightening, and of course infuriating. According to Hollywood, all American Indians were of the plains variety, all with the same sort of feathers, headbands, teepees, horses, etc. But Reel Injun gives us a glimpse at the true diversity of native peoples. At the start Diamond talks about how horses and so forth were not a part of Cree culture there, way up north. The journey mode of the film is engaging, and the film is cleverly  edited into various, often sardonically titled sections such as 'noble,' 'savage' and so on. I think they might even have a clip from Blazing Saddles in there. They talk about Iron Eyes Cody, who it turns out was Italian American, but wholeheartedly embraced native people and their culture, married a native woman and raised his children with native pride. Sacheen Littlefeather, the native activist (and one time model, very lovely woman) who accepted Marlon Brando's Oscar for The Godfather because he boycotted the awards for Hollywood's treatment of Native Americans, is an interview highlight. There are also lots of clips of more positive films, like one of my favorites, Little Big Man (read the source novel too). And of course indie films by and about natives, Smoke Signals and Pow Wow Highway. I still haven't seen Exiles, though I've heard only good things, but it's not covered here. They do have an amazing clip of filming The Fast Runner, in which a naked man runs across snow and ice.


  1. Bronson in Chato's Land is a must-see, genuine "injun" pedigree or no: if you reset Rambo in the Old West, increased the posse's racism and stupidity, and reduced Rambo's dialog by 95%, while upping the savagery, you'd be there. Michael Winner is underrated.
    How'd you see this documentary? DVD or on-line?
    Speaking of Native Americans, have you seen Robert Redford's Jeremiah Johnson? It's okay, but John Milius' original script is insane. For one thing, its working titles were "Liver-Eating Johnson" or "Crow Killer"--the character of Johnson was a mountain man getting revenge, and to the Crow Indians a defiled body couldn't reach "The Happy Hunting Ground," so Johnson would eat the livers of the Crow he killed. Based on a true story, no lie.

  2. Yes, I dig Bronson as an Indian hero, and Reynolds too. Nice description of Chato's Land (the whole movie's on Youtube by the way). And yes, Winner also directed Bronson in Death Wish, The Stone Killer, The Mechanic and more. I really liked Jeremiah Johnson, even though I would have rather seen someone else in the lead. The original script / true story sounds amazing. I saw Reel Injun streaming on NF.