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.