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Two Terrible Hollywood Films About Native Americans

Still from “Wind River.”

“Wind River” and “Hostiles”, two of this year’s highly praised films and clear-cut Oscar bait, have a number of things in common. They both feature bankable white male stars in leading roles as good-hearted saviors of indigenous peoples in the time-honored (speaking charitably) tradition of “Dances with Wolves”: Jeremy Renner and Christian Bale. They also were directed and written by white males who made the transition from acting careers: Taylor Sheridan and Scott Cooper. And, finally, they are both marred by political and artistic shortcomings. After making the case for them being rated “rotten” on Rotten Tomatoes, I will conclude with some thoughts on what might go into a Hollywood film about native peoples although I doubt The Weinstein Company (the distributor of “Wind River” that was cut loose by Taylor Sheridan after news broke about its sexual predator boss) would be interested.

This review will reveal the endings of both films but I doubt that by the time you get to that point in the article, you’ll have little interest in seeing either of them.

“Wind River” was filmed on the Wind River reservation in Wyoming that is home to the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho peoples. As the film begins, a young and attractive Arapaho woman is running barefoot through rugged and snow-swept terrain. We can assume she is running from somebody.

It will be up to Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) to discover who that somebody was after discovering her corpse the next day as he is out on his rounds as a United States Fish and Wildlife Service agent killing wolves and mountain lions that are preying on Indian-owned herds of lamb. You can see him nailing two wolves from a long distance using a high-powered rifle equipped with a telescopic sight. Dressed in white camouflage, he will remind you of the character Mark Wahlberg played in “Shooter”—a man of few words but supremely in control of his territory. Like Wahlberg’s character, Lambert is a loner only dropping in on his ex-wife—an Arapaho—to pick up his young son for a jaunt on a horse or a skimobile.

Lambert becomes part of an investigative team consisting of the reservation police department and a young and attractive FBI agent named Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) who will remind audiences of Clarice Starling in “Silence of the Lambs”. Banner ends up relying on Lambert who knows his ways around the reservation and is constantly cluing her in how to make sense out of footprints in the snow and the like, a latter-day Natty Bumppo. A bit of love interest between the two might have helped make the plodding story line more interesting but one suspects that Taylor Sheridan had little interest in developing female characters. His last film, the vastly overrated “Hell or High Water”, was about two brothers robbing banks in small, windswept west Texas towns and like the new one dwelt much more on landscapes than character development.

While most of the film consists of the posse riding snowmobiles through the drifts, there are two set pieces that incorporate the same kind of bloody mayhem that made many film critics rave over “Hell or High Water”. If you can’t wow audiences with brainy dialog, you might as well give them heavy doses of brains being blown out.

The first involves a confrontation with young Indian men living in a crack den, including the dead woman’s brother who might have been able to provide some leads on her killer. When a medical examiner discovered signs of rape and multiple lacerations, their first suspect was a boyfriend that the brother might be able to identify. Everybody in the crack den, which we understand is a potentially dangerous place because of the hip-hop music blaring from within, looks like cast members from the last Mad Max movie. Within a minute after arriving, these “bad guys” as Donald Trump might refer to them, open fire. Since drug use on Indian reservations is largely ignored by an often corrupt and uncaring police force, it is difficult to understand why a shootout was necessary except to break the tedium of the film. Like the final scene in “Silence of the Lambs”, the FBI agent takes down the nastiest of the crack-smoking savages with what a dozen or so rounds from her service revolver.

After further investigation, the posse discovers that the likely killer was part of a security team assigned to an oil drilling site. Through flashbacks we learn that the dead woman’s boyfriend was an Anglo member of an all-Anglo crew who was beaten to death after other crew members decided to gang rape her over his objections. (No wonder The Weinstein Company became persona non grata.) While he was being kicked and punched by this group of men who also might have drifted in from the same Mad Max movie, the woman fled from his trailer into the snowy wilderness to eventually die of exposure to subzero temperatures.

As was the case in the previous scene, the posse and the security guards begin shooting at each other from point blank range for what seems like an eternity while the bullets keep missing. I can accept such unlikely combat when it is from a Hong Kong gangster movie but Taylor Sheridan surely had another genre in mind. He calls Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven” the most important influence on his film and if you’ve seen its climax, you’ll recall Eastwood’s character magically escaping bullets fired from at least five different firearms at point blank range. Like Eastwood, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service agent and his FBI partner survive.

As the film concludes, you’ll see a statement about how missing person statistics are kept for every demographic groups—save for Native American women, whose numbers remain unknown. This was supposedly the inspiration for Sheridan’s film that will have about as much effect on this malign neglect as “Silence of the Lambs” had on serial killers.

In an interview with Indian Country Today, Sheridan spoke about his involvement with indigenous issues. When he was a lost soul in his early 20s in Los Angeles, someone invited him to a sweat lodge north of the city that became an emotional and spiritual salvation for him. Afterwards, he began “reading a bunch of writers who were native, such as Vine Deloria and others who were an introduction to ‘All in life that you’ve been taught is wrong’”.

This is the same Vine Deloria who once bemoaned the destructiveness of sweat lodges that allowed non-natives “taking bits and pieces of Indian culture and commercializing it.” He posed the question: “Why are people so tense that they have a hard time being themselves?” That’s doubly true of people making a living in Hollywood.

Like “Dances with Wolves”, “Hostiles” features a cavalry officer who learns to love the Indian way just like Taylor Sheridan. Christian Bale plays Captain Joseph J. Blocker, who is one of the biggest Indian slayers since Kit Carson. Nearing retirement in a New Mexico fort, he is ordered to escort a small band of Cheyenne Indians and their leader Yellow Hawk to their homeland in Montana, where the ailing chief hopes to spend his final days until buried in holy ground.

Cursing and spitting at the idea of doing anything for the savages, Blocker only obeys the order because refusing it would cost him his pension. As the small band begins its trek, they run into a woman whose husband and children have been killed by a band of Comanches who are about as wantonly bloodthirsty as Charles Manson’s family. She joins them but only because it is her only way of staying alive in hostile territory. Like Blocker, she has every reason to hate Indians but in her case the fury is driven more by personal loss than Manifest Destiny.

All this is taking place in 1892 when supposedly the Comanches ruled Texas, New Mexico and territory to the north just as much as Genghis Khan ruled a vast empire in Central Asia. This was the subject of a scholarly history titled “Comanche Empire” written by Pekka Hämäläinen in 2008 that I discussed here. Only one problem. By 1892, the Comanches had been virtually exterminated and the survivors herded into reservations. Infamous for the abduction of a white girl as dramatized in “The Searchers”, they no longer stole horses, hunted buffaloes or put the fear of god in settlers.

Suffice it to say that “Hostiles” ends up with Captain Blocker and the settler’s widow in a shootout with Montana ranchers who don’t want an Injun buried on their land. By the end of the film both have become smitten with Yellow Hawk who is the stereotypical wisdom-dispensing native. He warns them early on about the treacherous Comanches who by 1892 were living in wood-frame houses, dressing in Western clothing and ranching for a living—at least the bourgeois upper crust of the tribe.

After Blocker and the widow, who has by this point turned into something like Annie Oakley, take out the ranchers, they ride off into the sunset with her adopting the sole surviving young boy in Yellow Hawk’s band. Only in Hollywood.

It takes a lot of gumption for Scott Cooper to make such an Indian-loving film after his 2013 Out of the Furnace, about which I had this to say:

Midway through the film, Casey Affleck’s character persuades a local petty criminal named John Petty (Willem Dafoe) to line him up a fight in Ramapo Mountains in New Jersey, a modern-day equivalent of one of those outlaw hangouts in a cowboy movie called Vulture’s Gulch. It is filled with ornery cusses, but none worse than Curtis DeGroat, a drug dealer and bare-knuckles fight promoter played by Woody Harrelson. DeGroat is pure evil, a character who would have been played by Jack Palance or Richard Widmark in years past. When John Petty and Rodney Baze Jr. are leaving the Ramapo Mountains back to Braddock after a fight in which Affleck has taken a dive, DeGroat and his henchmen corner them on a country road and shoot both to death. When Russell Baze finds out that his brother has been killed, he plots revenge against Curtis DeGroat.

Now I, unlike most people who go to see this movie, know a bit more about the Ramapo’s than most people, having seen and reviewed a documentary called “Mann versus Ford” that recounts the struggle of Lenape Indians in the Ramapough Mountains (the same as Ramapo) against Ford Motor. In the 1950s trucks loaded with toxic waste such as paint residue would dump them into the water supplies of the Lenape Indians who lived in the area they refer to as the Ramapough Mountains. Like Indians in Ecuador or North Dakota, they were victims of powerful corporations. And, as it turns out, the most common name among the Lenapes is DeGroat.

In March 2010, there was an article about the Ramapough Mountain Indians in the New Yorker magazine, once again reminding its civilized and cosmopolitan readers that there are some ugly people out there:

“Mountain people” is a euphemism for what locals used to call “Jackson Whites”—a racial slur that the referents equate with the word “nigger.” They call themselves Ramapough Mountain Indians, or the Ramapough Lenape Nation, using an old Dutch spelling for the name of the river that cuts through the Hudson and North Jersey Highlands, although suburban whites tend to think of them as racially indeterminate clansfolk.

If there are any aspiring screenwriters out there, especially those who are Native Americans or who at least know enough not to screw up their history as badly as Scott Cooper, let me suggest a plot that would make the best move about indigenous peoples in this century—or maybe ever.

I would set it in one of those residential schools where Indian children were sent to have their identity beaten out of them, starting with their native tongue. I would have the film climax in an uprising where they put on war paint, beat down the staff especially any sadist who punished them from using their native language, and finally burn the school down as they walk off triumphantly into the sunset. Enough with the god-damned cowboys riding off…

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Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.

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