DVD review: 'Reel Injun'
Striking out on a journey-quest not unlike that of the contemporary Indians of 1989’s “Powwow Highway,” Cree documentarian Neil Diamond sets out in his rambling film “Reel Injun” to locate the true heart of America’s indigenous people in the sideshow babble of Hollywood history.
Charting a course in his rickety “rez car” from his Canadian home near the Arctic Circle to Los Angeles, Diamond constructs a loose travelogue that seeks to examine the evolution Hollywood’s depiction of American Indians in the movies over the past century plus (from Thomas Edison’s earliest Kinetoscope image of Indian dancers onward).
“Reel Injun,” told with no shortage of world-weary irony, makes stops along the way at several iconic locations that figure strongly in the shifting stereotypes that moviemakers have used to depict Native Americans. Those include the Black Hills of South Dakota, the Crow Agency in Montana, Little Big Horn, the Navajo Nation and Utah’s Monument Valley (where so many John Ford-John Wayne shoot-‘em-ups were staged).
Along the way, Diamond identifies various roles that Indian characters have been assigned in movies to fit cultural (read that: white) expectations.
In the silent era, it was the “noble native.” During the Depression came the “brutal savage,” usually vanquished by stalwart Westerners such as John Wayne. In the age of civil rights, we saw the emergence of the “dead Injun,” whose extermination was an emblem of social injustice. And later came the appearance of the “groovy wise man,” a rebellious proto-hippie figure in touch with nature and personified in films such as “Billy Jack.”
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