The road to Indian Country is littered with the crumpled bodies of white men who have attempted to make their Native film pet projects. Johnny Depp’s deadpan performance as Tonto in the 2013 version of The Lone Ranger did not endear him to the Indigenous crowd at large (though he was embraced by the Comanche Nation). Adam Sandler’s Netflix original movie, Ridiculous 6, was largely ridiculed and declared flat-out racist in some circles. The popular animated film Pocahontas is pure fiction; the real Pocahontas was arguably kidnapped by white men and raped in captivity. There have been some partial successes; Kevin Costner made a decent, financially successful, critically acclaimed film set on Lakota lands, Dances with Wolves. And then there’s James Cameron’s Avatar. Yes, it’s a sci-fi picture, but you don’t get to recruit Wes Studi to be a blue chieftain in your film without some passing reference to Indians. These are textbook examples of “white savior” films. Costner out-Indians the Indians and in the case of Avatar, Sam Worthington out-Na’vi’s the Na’vi. Both save the day.
“Anglos” get in trouble writing about Native Americans when they focus on their own agenda and projections and disregard the old adage, “Write what you know.” How can you really know a thing when you are not a part of it? This is an enormous challenge to non-Natives striving to create such work. Somehow, though, it never stops them from trying, and this year, we have two films that aptly demonstrate this principle.
Steven Lewis Simpson opens his well-intentioned…
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