Native Misrepresentation in Film

Film photo common usage internet source
Film photo common usage internet source

Natives may always find debatable whether non-native actors should be cast for roles depicting natives, particularly when experienced Native American actors are available. It doesn’t matter if it’s in an action comedy with Johnny Depp as Tonto, or a drama such as “Jimmy P.” where Puerto Rican American Benecio Del Toro starred as a Blackfoot veteran suffering from a variety of psychological issues. Yet those natives who feel such roles should go to a native actor are not alone. More and more other groups are demanding to be represented by one of their own in film. Consider the dwarf actors who questioned the casting of normal-sized performers in “Snow White and the Huntsman”, with little person Danny Woodburn comparing the casting choice to the use of “blackface”.

Even more recently, some in transgender communities spoke out not only against Jared Leto’s casting as a transgender female in 2013’s “Dallas Buyers Club”, but most especially against his off-screen ignorant comments about the very group he was supposedly representing. Instead of a transgender actor who could have used the media attention for a positive educational presentation of an often stereotyped and marginalized group, instead we had an actor who used them for the butt of “tasteless” jokes.

Yet Hollywood is Hollywood, primarily run by an elite old school of white men from certain backgrounds who continue to feed audiences what they believe audiences want or what they wish portrayed, especially regarding natives and the history of the indigenous peoples of the Americas. I feel the vast majority of their efforts systematically fail, displaying a lack of understanding and cultural awareness that insults audience intelligence and very much ignores their diversity.

Casting may always be an issue for star native character roles, but the bottom line is: directors and producers continue to create films by writers where, from the first screenplay draft to final production and advertising, natives and their history, present and future are being demeaned and misrepresented. An example is the film “Alone Yet Not Alone”, which first came to the attention for the Oscar nomination for its theme song several weeks ago. Forums and discussion boards across Indian Country have been on fire with articles and comments by natives on what is considered by many a racist film.

Despite being in the year 2014, such films unfortunately are still created, but it doesn’t just happen on Turtle Island. It happens here in Germany as well, and without the number of dissenting and protesting voices that might have brought discussion that corrected serious flaws in the accuracy of the production, or drew attention to its wrongs upon release, films like “The White Comanche”, initially titled “The White Squaw,” are unleashed upon an audience that too often accept what they don’t know to be a lie as fact.

As you might have read it my previous article, “ Germany’s Obsession With American Indians Is Touching—And Occasionally Surreal,” Germans continue to be fascinated by the Old West of the USA. Native American Indians are especially popular, so of course, writers and production companies continue to churn out what are by majority laughable renditions of Indian stories and “Indians” themselves. “The White Comanche” was no different.

Based on the life of Cynthia Ann Parker, which many natives know as being the mother of eventual Comanche chief Quannah Parker, that the writer and filmmakers didn’t know the term “squaw” is roundly considered to be a highly offensive and derogatory term for native women in the first place was the first “red flag” that went up when I was contacted by Bilderfest as possible expert/liaison and native casting agent.

After a relatively short time, however, I declined to participate any further in the project as agreements made were backtracked upon by them, namely: that native roles would be played by natives of which there were enough ready, willing and experienced, a copy of the screenplay would be provided so whoever was in the capacity of expert might advise or correct, and finally that I would be compensated for my work, time and effort. None of those things happened.

Additionally, in dealing with the film production company and its representative, in the same way I’ve been answered by museum directors with culturally offensive displays about natives, or hobbyists aping our cultures for their own fantasy lives: they all claim to themselves be an expert on native cultures, have contacted and/or been approved by natives of whatever tribe they are portraying, and sincerely claim to have natives best interests at heart. Like they, Bilderfest failed spectacularly which resulted in an ignorant film without merit or redemption.

In “The White Comanche”, instead of native roles being cast with natives, Bilderfest resorted to slapping bad, black wigs on bronzed German “Indian” hobbyists who provided their own mish-mash of “native inspired” gear, clothing and costuming. The company claimed this was due to limited budgeting, yet they paid these hobbyists the same salaries which natives had been passed over for.

Scorning actual native or even non-native historians and scholars with degrees in Native American Studies, Anthropology or similar fields, Prof. Glenn Frankel was chosen, a man who teaches journalism at the University of Texas at Austin. It seems the fact that he wrote a book on the making of the movie “The Searchers” with John Wayne, his sole qualification, was enough to make him an expert on “Indians.”

Repeatedly throughout the film, based on very slim details of the actual historical event, Frankel generously provided commentary of the most macabre tidbits of any and all misdeeds of Indians of the era, so that like natives in “Alone Yet Not Alone”, they were mostly presented as cruel, inhuman, and depraved creatures, inferior in all ways to whites.

Another outstanding opinion by Frankel was that Cynthia’s acceptance and eventual love for the Comanche people was no more than “Stockholm Syndrome”, a psychological condition where a kidnapped or confined individual comes to defend and identify with their captors. Insulting much? Some captives came to love the tribes they were with because they came to see them as worthy of that love and not the hideous animals presented by white society. Such as was the case with Cynthia Ann Parker, after being separated from the tribe she had come to be a part of and faced with broad scorn by her white peers, she chose not to go on living.

Despite Bilderfest’s advertising “The White Comanche” as a documentary, that definition being “a film, television, or radio program that provides a factual report on a particular subject,” it was no true documentary. Even the company representative revealed to me that in their desire to make the story “entertaining” for its viewers, special “additions” would be made to spice it up, and this is where I particularly feel they crossed the line into unethical and harmful misrepresentation not to mention the simply ludicrous choices on details.

The film as a whole was a mixture of reenacted scenes and fantasized comic strips presenting the most savage acts that might not otherwise be allowable on primetime television. Translators deliberately chose more sexualized words for the English counterparts when other more accurate terms could have been used, in what seemed a direct tabloid attempt to shock viewers. For example, to represent what females, both native and captive may have to endure, one of those comic strips “pictures a man and a woman having intercourse, the woman screaming in pain and sobbing, and the man grunting and shouting triumphantly.”

In the attempt to add real “native flavor”, these false “natives” were required to speak dialogue in an “Indian” tongue, yet despite portraying Comanches the language used was Lakota, spoken with Bavarian accents no less! And of course, all Comanche males must have on full feather headdresses, and eat peyote and dance all day and night before rush off whooping to pounce upon helpless females who had been made to work to exhaustion like slaves.

Chris Woydelko, a film critic had their review posted at the Native American Association of Germany’s website, “The comic seems to be rather dated, as there are lots of pictures showing stereotyped images of Native Americans as savage, cruel, treating their foes and captives inhumanely, slaughtering whites, and raping white women. To make these pictures more vivid, gushes of blood were added, squirting from the dead bodies of whites stabbed or chopped down by savagely grimacing Natives baring their fangs with an evil look on their face.”

Whether it is a film like “Alone But Not Alone” or its similar German equivalent, “The White Comanche”, what are some of the solutions to combat such continued self-serving and deluded drivel?

Despite funding being a huge problem for film projects, and the cost of advertising, distribution and venues that are willing to show native made films that get people in chairs viewing, talking about and sharing: we absolutely need more films on natives by natives, where we represent and portray ourselves in all honesty, fiction or non-fiction, the good and the bad.

As apparently other filmmakers aren’t doing so, nor are willing to be corrected when correction is warranted, we have to present our cultures, traditions, lives, history, past and future accurately ourselves, and be willing to do so no matter what it takes or where in the world it is necessary.

6 thoughts on “Native Misrepresentation in Film

  1. Wow. That Frankel sounds like he thought ‘The Searchers’ was a documentary, not yet another racist Hollywood work of fiction.

    1. Indeed, and the same with “The White Comanche.” Such ones who participate and produce such racist works validate each other. They certainly don’t want anyone to challenge or question them either. They become positively agitated.

  2. It doesn’t surprise me how Natives are portrayed in movies. When I worked on the various rez’s in California, there was a tendency to find non-natives to work with the tribes over the objections of the Indian unit, whose sole purpose was to work with the tribes. I got the impression they didn’t care about native issues and wanted to simply place Natives in the “other” box and deal with it that way.

    1. I agree 100%. They like to make you into stereotypes for their own amusement, research study, or in this case, a supposed documentary which was included a minimal amount of fact and then a majority of assumption and conjecture. All too often, even the ones who say they want to work with you, represent or portray some of your history or something similar. There are some out there who are genuine who really want to work with natives and present their stories accurately, educationally, truthfully, etc. but they are few and far between. Most don’t. They want to serve a certain kind of movie geared for the approval or liking of non-natives who also want their stereotypical views reinforced, or natives who might be different but who eventually conform to the colonized norm or die.

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