'Reel Injun'

Much more than a simple collection of clips, Reel Injun proves to be an illuminating semi-personal essay as well. Filmmaker Neil Diamond travels across North America as a backdrop for his exploration of Hollywood's heritage in depicting Indians on the big screen. Hint: It is found severely wanting.

Reel Injun features interviews with Clint Eastwood, directors Jim Jarmusch and Chris Eyre, actor Adam Beach, and comedian Charlie Hill along with the multi-talented and influential Russell Means and John Trudell. Sacheen Littlefeather recounts her life leading up to the memorable night in which she declined the Academy Award for Marlon Brando; Means and Trudell recall what that meant, coming as it did in the midst of the takeover in Wounded Knee, South Dakota.

But Diamond begins with movies that are big, well-known targets. They Died With Their Boots On (1941) and Stagecoach (1939) reduced Native Americans to offensive caricatures as bloodthirsty savages, "injuns" who were blocking the progress of the "real" Americans, i.e. white people. Then the film places things into context by briefly recounting the injustices done to all North American Natives and charts the ups and (mostly) downs of their big-screen incarnations.

Early American cinema was actually quite favorable toward Indians. As the sound era began, however, films with positive depictions did not fare well at the box office. And then, as now, Hollywood was looking for fresh villains.

As the Western became popular, so too did the cinematic notion that Indians were brave, stoic, and silent, except when they were whooping it up in their excitement to kill white people. Along with the poisonous characterizations came stereotypes mashing all Native peoples into one, generic, all-encompassing tribe. Thus, on screen, all Indians became expert horsemen and dressed alike, for example.

The documentary points out that, while a few different tribes may have fit certain aspects of those stereotypes, it certainly wasn't true of all tribes. And no one wore a headband like their cinematic imitators; most likely, the headband was introduced to help white actors keep their long-haired wigs from falling off.

That introduces another long-standing problem: Native peoples being played by white people. Clint Eastwood recalls in an interview that on one Western, the director called for "a real native, upfront. I want to see the real thing." Only thing was, says Eastwood, "We couldn't find one!"

Landmark films such as Little Big Man and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest are given their due, while Dances With Wolves comes in for scorn, apart from Graham Greene's performance. "They make my people [the Lakota] look like they needed a white man to teach them to fight," fumes an outraged Russell Means. "We're the only people who ever defeated the U.S. military on U.S. soil!"

Moving briskly through the decades, Reel Injun packs plenty of information into 90 or so minutes of running time. To the traditional doc mix of clips and talking head interviews, Diamond adds footage of his travels, allowing a look into the current state of life on different reservations, and also affording him the opportunity to interview folks who aren't so famous, but have something pertinent to add to the discussion. The most powerful may be a classroom scene, in which young children are shown the brutal massacre in Little Big Man. Diamond's own, spare narration fits the material well.

Reel Injun
opened theatrically in Canada last month and is still playing limited engagements. It's set to play more festivals, and then air on PBS this fall. The filmmakers are also hoping to gain theatrical distribution in the U.S. Check the official site for more information.