Before Slavery there was Cultural Genocide
What 3 Films can teach us about what and if we’ve learned from our egregious history….
Racism has deep roots within our collective cultural history, and for this reason has not escaped ‘the grand mirror’ of the cinema. Early films depicting ‘race’ simply reflected our collective understanding of it, which needless to say, was quite narrow and well, “racist”. We do have emotional connections with films. Film as art is an outward expression of our internal processes. But films are also a grand mirror of our real and imagined existence. If we can live and dream through film, then we can also ‘learn’ through film about life and our imaginations. So film allows us to explore and affirm who we are and what we believe, but also learn about whom we are and what we believe. We have a century of film history to reveal what this symbiotic relationship has born to us culturally. So it could be said movies are a cinematic documentary of the evolution of our culture; sometimes in real time, and sometimes in retrospect.
Early 20th century understanding of ‘ethnicity’ was limited to white and non-white; white being “White Anglo-Saxon Protestant” (WASP), and everyone else being not WASP (Benshoff, Grifffen page 51). In early American film, “white is positioned as a default category, the center or the assumed norm on which everything else is based.” (Benshoff, Griffen page 53). Non-whites were typically positioned in the periphery of this “assumed norm” of American life and were “represented with certain stereotypes.” (Benshoff, Griffen page 51). These stereotypes were not subtle and were often purposefully exaggerated for theatrical impact; the ‘lazy’ Mexican; the ‘ignorant’ black person; the ‘gangster’ Italian; the ‘savage’ Indian; the ‘fighting’ Irish; etc.
By the later part of the 20th century however, cultural differences as defined by our ‘race’, for the most part, began to be seen as the ‘normal’ reflection of our diverse society. Individual opinion on ‘white supremacy’ still was and is, largely dependent on demographics, and lingering racial intransigence is still evident in every aspect of American life. The film industry is no exception, but the days of outright racial stereotyping in film is again for the most part, no longer tolerated by an audience with a more discerning eye toward social integrity. Modern audiences have proven to appreciate a mix of entertainment and education, and some films have had great success in re-visiting past grievances of discrimination, as well as exposing existing racial injustice. These historical accounts can be rich with all the elements of a gripping and moving cinematic drama as evidenced by the box office receipts and film awards of films like Schindler’s List, Dances with Wolves and Lincoln.
The historical genocide of the Native American Indian is one of our nation’s worst racial transgressions. The American Indian still lacks significant civic representation in our current culture, so a realistic and meaningful cinematic representation of their plight should be worthy of analysis.
“Dances with Wolves” – 1990
Perhaps no other movie dealing with the plight of the American Indian has touched the hearts of the American movie goer like Dances with Wolves (DW), directed and produced by Kevin Costner. DW is the “highest grossing western of all time” and is said to have sparked a Hollywood renaissance in western genre films. (“Dances with Wolves; Trivia”). It won seven of its 12 Oscar nominations including Best Picture. Based on the 1988 novel by Michael Blake, DW takes us to the Great Plains during the Civil War in 1863 as seen through the eyes and mind of Lt. John Dunbar, played by Kevin Costner. What he learns and shares with the viewer provides an intimate window into the clash of cultures that ultimately led to the extermination of the American Indian, but also the psychological factors that could have prevented it.
DW explores the injustice of genocide from the perspective of 19th century Lakota Indians and the U.S. Calvary. Genocide has been committed throughout history on the basis of geo-politics, racism and religion; reasons, but by no means justifications. The character of Dunbar is fully aware of the conflict between Indians and settlers on the Northern Plains, yet he still displays cautious optimism about his prospects for a life on the prairie. This requires a character not prone to blind assumption or gullible to irrational fears spurred by prejudiced hearsay. Roger Ebert, who gave the film Four Thumbs Up, contemplated Dunbar’s character when he said, “A civilized man is a person whose curiosity outweighs his prejudices.” (Ebert). John Dunbar was a civilized man.
Evidence of murder and desperation on the plains is made clear by the skeleton and destroyed wagon that Dunbar passes on the trail, and the eerily bizarre condition he finds his abandoned post, Fort Sedgwick. But even while Dunbar fears the worst fate for those soldiers, without the facts, he must suspend his impulse to accuse, blame or persecute the Indian people who were most likely involved in some way. He first encounters Kicking Bird, a Lakota Holy Man who is quietly attempting to take his horse, Cisco, while Dunbar is bathing in the creek. A naked Dunbar aggressively comes up on the Indian startling him with a loud and abrupt “Hey!” Frantic with fear and surprise the Indian scrambles to his horse and quickly rides away. This encounter illustrates a ‘typically human’ reaction from both Dunbar and the Indian. Dunbar doesn’t ‘shoot first and ask questions later’, and Kicking Bird doesn’t savagely rush Dunbar with a hatchet to take his scalp. The fact that both men reacted ‘rationally’ in contradiction to their preconceptions is not lost on either of them, and this sets the tone which allows for the development of their relationship.
In a study on genocide, David L. Smith, PhD said “In dehumanizing others, we exclude them from the circle of moral obligation. We can then kill, oppress, and enslave them with impunity. Taking the life of a dehumanized person becomes of no greater consequence than crushing an insect under one’s boot.” (Smith, PhD). So, the act of genocide requires ‘dehumanization’. The contrast between Dunbar’s attitude of respecting the differences between white and Indian, and that of the Calvary and common folk that “The only good Indian is a dead Indian” explains to the viewer how the native American’s right to even exist was dismissed as easily and coldly as they shot and killed Dunbar’s wolf, Two Socks, who inspired his Lakota name, Dances with Wolves. The lucidity in Dunbar’s efforts to understand and empathize with the Indians, reveals it was indeed the dehumanization of native Americans that led to their genocide – not the presence of American settlers.
It was no mistake that Dances with Wolves won the Oscar for Best Sound and Best Musical Score. The film relied heavily but adeptly on non-diegetic sound, as the period and the geography of the film provided little audio opportunities from the setting that many other films are afforded. We have one man, a horse and a wolf on the Prairie with Indians who don’t speak English. Yet the film is alive with feeling and thoughtful communication. The orchestral musical score was written by John Barry who “agreed to score the film immediately after reading the script.” (“Dances with Wolves; Trivia”). His score ‘shows’ the grandeur of the prairie, the utopian harmony of the Indian camp and the pale bleakness of the soldier fort. We ‘hear’ the silent conversations between Dunbar, Cisco and Two Socks and his Indian connections. We ‘feel’ the confusion and trepidation of a people confronting an unknown future; the excitement of the hunt; the adrenaline of battle; and we ‘sense’ the powerful love between Dunbar and Stands with a Fist. Diegetic uses of sound include the natural sounds of the prairie; wind, a horse’s breath, a buffalo stampede, a lone wagon. Silence is also poignantly used; the vastness of the ‘American Frontier’; the loneliness at the fort; the peace within the Lakota camp; as well as the tension between cultures either longing to connect or stewing in their resentment and frustration.
Costner’s narration as Dunbar compliments an amazing score. Dunbar provides the audience with the objective clarity of a news reporter, seemingly aware that his words need to maintain the impartial tone of an honest observer void of bias for those who will follow. Of a three day buffalo hunt with his native friends he writes, “They were a people so eager to laugh; so devoted to family; so dedicated to each other. The only word that comes to mind is harmony.” English subtitles add realism to the Lakota people and to the film itself. The cultural wall that separated the Indian and the white man in the 1800’s would never have been conveyed to the audience as powerfully if these Indians had spoken English just for the benefit of the viewer.
This is a chronological tale told in first person narrative through the eyes and words of Lt. John Dunbar in 1863 Civil war torn America. As a ‘classical’ phase of genre, we follow the protagonist, Dunbar, on a journey of self-discovery. Dissatisfied and disillusioned with “dark political” wars, Dunbar becomes an unlikely war hero after a moment of clarity, or insanity, triggers him to risk his life on the battle field, and in the process, break a protracted stand-off on the Confederate front lines. He is given his choice of post for his ‘courage’, and he decides to see the American Frontier “before it’s gone.” His open mind and longing for peace leads Dunbar to find philosophical meaning and emotional sanctuary with a Lakota tribe. His time with the Lakota forces Dunbar to question the values of his own people. After witnessing the needless slaughter of dozens of buffalo left to rot only for their tongues and hides, he writes “It was clear whoever did this were a people without value and without soul. The wagon tracks left no doubt who was responsible.” When he finds love with Stands with a Fist, the orphaned white women raised by the tribe, his destiny is sealed, and he is renamed “Dances with Wolves” from his observed relations with the wolf he befriends on the prairie. The Ideology of DW can be found in a quote from a Pawnee War Chief killed in 1872, “When a white man kills an Indian in a fair fight it is called honorable, but when an Indian kills a white man in a fair fight, it is called murder.” Dances with Wolves allows us to finally grieve and honor the loss of our genocidal victims, and resolve to ‘never forget’.
“Billy Jack” – 1971
Written, directed and starring Tom Laughlin in 1969, and released in 1971, Billy Jack came to personify the counter-culture movement of the mid-20th century. Billy Jack was a half-blood Sioux Indian Special Ops Vietnam veteran, who didn’t ‘pull any punches’ when it came to defending the weak, the outnumbered or the mistreated. It won no awards, and received mixed reviews, but a 2007 expose’ on the Billy Jack Franchise in “Pop Matters” said, “this counterculture icon became a wholesome household word.” (Gibron). His anti-establishment views and Shaman-warrior style came to symbolize the dichotomy of an enlightened generation “fighting for peace”.
Billy Jack (BJ) shines a cinematic light on both flagrant and institutional racism. The issues of the American “counter culture” movement that peaked in the late 1960’s with the growing unrest over the Vietnam War, included freedom of personal expression; gender equality; civil rights of minorities; spiritualism over materialism; sexual freedom; mind expansion through drug use; and non-violence aimed at the military industrial complex. There were many who were reluctant to accept these changes in society, even spiteful toward its advocates; that believed equality and integration of ideas, gender and race were a dangerous threat to the moral fabric of society. Systemic fundamental bigotry soon became cloaked in the guise of ‘traditional values’ and ‘morality’, and is still rampant in America today, ‘cloaked’ or not.
In the film, the recluse character of Billy Jack lives outside a small conservative town on an Indian reservation, also home to “Freedom School” run by pacifist, Jean Roberts. The school houses kids who either ran away or were rejected by families who can’t cope with their ‘problematic’ ways. After her repeated attempts to run away to California, the town Deputy’s 15 year old daughter Barbara tells her father she’s pregnant but doesn’t know who the father is. When he asks what she means, she replies, “What I mean ‘dear father’ is that I was passed around by so many men, I don’t know whether this baby’s gonna come out white, Indian, Mexican or ‘black’!” The beating he gives her puts her in the hospital. She soon finds refuge at the school, which becomes a point of serious contention between the school and the town.
Another iconic scene is when the owner of the local sundry refuses to serve ice-cream to Indian kids from the school during a town visit. An older ‘white’ student challenges him but she is interrupted by the wealthy and exalted Mr. Posner’s masochistic son Bernard, who enters and claims he has a “solution.” He pours flour on their young faces as they sit in shock, and tells the owner, “See, now they’re all white – problem solved.” The town’s people ask the timorous town Sherriff what he’s “gonna do about those long haired weirdoes”, and during a town council meeting regarding the ‘disruption’ caused by the ‘students’ in the town, one student is referred to as “a filthy little girl” when she asks if it is her ‘sexuality’ that scares them all so much. Ultimately an Indian student, Martin, is shot and killed when the Deputy discovers his daughter has feelings for him. Billy’s revenge on those who torment the students, the school, or Jean, is bittersweet. The symptoms of bigotry are merely a veneer.
Billy Jack is a parable of ‘good vs. evil’. We are told the tale through Jean Roberts. The protagonist Billy Jack is the proverbial warrior who places himself between all that is good in his world, and all that is evil. All that is good is the Indian reservation where he lives, the wild horses he protects from poachers, the Freedom School, and Jean who keeps the dream and vision of the school alive. All that is evil are the corrupt law authority and ignorant simpletons of the town who shoot his horses for dog food, and terrorize the students of the school for what it and they stand for – equality, creativity, freedom and peace – embodied in his beloved Jean. In one scene, Billy says, “When policemen break the law, then there isn’t any law – just a fight for survival.” When policemen broke the law or didn’t enforce it, Billy was the law.
It is a realist ‘social problem’ film, and as Roger Ebert put it, “There’s not a single contemporary issue, from ecology to gun control, that’s not covered,” (Ebert). We’re taken chronologically through a series of clashes between the ‘good school’ and ‘evil town’; each time Billy appears to protect and to pass his judgment, usually with adept physical might. But as these clashes intensify, Billy cannot be all places at all times. After Martin is shot and killed by the Deputy, and Jean is raped by Bernard, the film climaxes as Billy hands down his fierce wrath of justice without impunity. After killing the Deputy and Bernard, there is a shootout and ultimate standoff at a church where Billy is hold up. Jean pleads with Billy to give himself up; “So easy for you to die dramatically! It’s a hell of a lot tougher for those of us who have to keep on trying!” Out of his love for Jean he surrenders on the demands the school will be protected. Jean cries as she tells Billy she knows how “letting them” handcuff and arrest him will be the hardest thing he’s ever had to do, and in a moving last scene as Billy is led off in a squad car, the students of Freedom school line the street with their fists raised in salute, to Billy Jack.
The films score embodies the premise and message of BJ; of innocence, peace and courage in constant struggle with corruption, hostility and fear. Written by Dennis Lambert and Brian Potter, “One Tin Soldier” spent weeks on the Top 40 List. The musical score opens the film as we see aerial footage of several men on horseback chasing down dozens of beautiful wild horses for slaughter. The score also closes the film during Billy’s arrest, exit and his salute. The chorus is as follows: “Go ahead and hate your neighbor. Go ahead and cheat a friend. Do it in the name of Heaven. You can justify it in the end. There won’t be any trumpets blowing come the judgment day, on the bloody morning after….One tin soldier rides away.” “[Billy Jack] was more than a cinematic symbol; he began taking the unlikely form of a substantive political force. People identified with the man, seeing an empathetic anti-establishment pose in everything he stood for.” (Gibron). In 2011, Mark Wahlberg’s production company purchased the rights to the Billy Jack franchise (Micciow). Perhaps a new generation can now learn the lessons of Billy Jack’s struggle of fighting for peace.
“Thunderheart” – 1992
As a fictional film, Thunderheart is actually based loosely on two real events; the 1973 hold-out at the South Dakota town of Wounded Knee and the 1975 shootout at Pine Ridge Indian Reservation that resulted in the death of FBI agents. The film’s director, Michael Apted, had previously in 1992 directed a documentary surrounding the 1975 shootings titled Incident at Oglala. Both incidents were blamed on the aboriginal militant group, American Indian Movement (AIM). The group protested social injustices and substandard living conditions on the reservation, and a corrupt pro-American tribal government, whom residents blamed for much of the violence and bloodshed. (“AIM occupation of Wounded Knee begins”).
Thunderheart (TH) paints a stark picture of the substandard living conditions on an Indian Reservation, as well as the exploitation of their lands for mineral resources. The U.S. government recognizes 565 Indian tribes in 35 states. Nearly half of Native Americans in the U.S. qualify for federal assistance. Twenty three percent of Native Americans live at or under the poverty line. Alcohol related death is over 500 percent higher; diabetes 177 percent higher; TB 500 percent higher; and suicide double that of average population rates. Suicide among Native American teens is the highest of any demographic in the nation. As of 2000, 47 percent of Native Americans lived on reservations. (“Center for Native American Youth”).
The reservation in the film is located in South Dakota on the outskirts of the ‘Badlands’ National Park; strangely beautiful but less than hospitable. To the Natives who live on the ‘rez’ it is their home, and has been for hundreds of years (on a much larger scale). The natives are poor, living among scattered broken cars and appliances; lacking the resources to have them removed. Their homes are dilapidated and many are ‘makeshift’ from recycled materials; “a modern Indian reservation — which, as the movie reveals, is by now a fancy word for slum.” (Gleiberman). Their children are forced to play among the debris. But the Indians find their solace and their peace of mind in their traditions, each other and in their history.
When FBI agent Ray Levoy (Val Kilmer) first comes to the ‘rez’, he asks, “Where the hell did they send us?” His field supervisor, Frank Coutelle says, “Well Ray, these are your people.” “They’re not my people.” He retorts. Ray’s father was a Sioux; an alcoholic who died when Ray was seven. He spent his life ashamed and in denial of his heritage. Hesitant and cynical at first, Ray begins to sensitize to the people, their culture and their obvious suffering. Ray’s investigation uncovers several truths. Among them that the tribal government is violent and antagonistic toward the traditionalists, and that the water is making the people sick. Ray also rediscovers a deep connection with his heritage and a people he had denied all his life in shame; much like a country who in their own shame and denial, fenced in an entire race as if to have to look in their eyes would mean to face their collective guilt.
TH is a contemporary western genre thriller. It is a chronological narrative that tells itself in realist form with “a documentary’s attentiveness to detail.” (Maslin). Filming took place in South Dakota and even on Pine Ridge Reservation where the Oglala and Wounded Knee incidents that inspired the film took place. Silhouetted Native Americans in song chant open the film. There is diegetic use of Native song and chant among the natives in prayer and celebration, and during Ray’s visions of ancient warriors performing the aboriginal ‘Ghost Dance’. Bruce Springsteen’s “Badlands” accompanies the first scene of Ray Levoy on a Washington D.C. freeway. There is some use of Native language, but mostly heavily accented English is used adding diegetic color to the native characters.
Agent Ray Levoy comes to Bear Creek Reservation for an in-and-out ‘sensitive operations unit’ to assist an investigation in the murder of a member of its tribal government in a civil war with the Aboriginal Rights Movement (ARM), and the apprehension of the accused killer, Jimmy Looks Twice. His estranged Native heritage is what prompts Washington to give Ray this assignment in hopes he can “get the natives talkin.” Tentative and dubious at first, Ray soon begins to question the violent methods and tactics used against the traditionalists and, to his own incredulity, begins to sympathize with the cause of the ARM, and his people. The reservation Elders have awarded him a certain level of trust with the natives that he cannot explain, but soon learns they believe him to be the reincarnated Thunderheart, sent to end the war and heal their land.
With the ethereal wisdom of Elder Grandpa Sam Reaches and street smart Crow Horse, Ray learns the tribal government is corrupt and has made a deal with Ray’s field superior, Frank Coutelle, to illegally lease tribal lands to strip mine for uranium, which is poisoning the water. The alleged murder is a cover up of an ‘inside job’ to eliminate anyone who finds out, and frame it on the ARM: Jimmy. When Maggie Eagle Bear is found murdered at the ‘source’ of the Little White River where pollutants from uranium test drilling are entering the water supply, Ray and Crow Horse take the miscreants including, Agent Frank Coutelle, on a car chase to the “strong hold”; where Thunderheart led his people at Wounded Knee 100 years before, and where he was shot in the back by the U.S. Calvary. Just when it seems Ray and Crow Horse will repeat history, the traditionalists appear on the craggy cliffs surrounding them, holding their assailants at gun point. Agent Coutelle is handed over to Internal Affairs. Crow Horse calls it a “white wash”.
Ray discards the mirage of his prior life and vows to use his ‘white man’s education’ to expose the injustices brought on Bear Creek Reservation, and continue the work Maggie Eagle Bear had started to improve the life of Native Americans. The film ends as Ray silently sits at the cross roads of the reservation exit and the interstate highway – symbolic of the cross roads of Native Americans in 21st century America; evocative of the Native Americans in 19th century America.
There is high degree of explicit ideology in TH. At first for Ray, there’s no difference between the traditionalists and the tribal government supporters – they’re all Indians, or as the café owner puts it, “Prairie niggers”. But soon, his keen senses pick up the clear contrasts. Tribal government supporters or “goons” as they’re called are loud, crass, and aggressive. They dress well, but they’re hollow and speak poorly. They carry guns because they’re impatient. The traditionalists are spiritual and passive family people. They don’t carry guns; they carry a quiet resolve. Outside their native ceremonial dress, they are disheveled, but they have a solid grace about them. They are quick witted and alert and have a kind of knowing that is almost unnerving. Ray becomes known as the “Washington redskin”. Reservation cop, Walter Crow horse calls him the “Federal Bureau of Intimidation.” Yellow Hawk tells him that around there he’s “the FBI – Full Blooded Indian.” Ray is struck by their insight and boldness in the face of impossible odds.
Crow Horse takes him to the Elder, Grandpa Sam Reaches, who tells Ray about his father, his heritage, and his past life as “Thunderheart”; a holy man who died in a massacre 100 years before, “with the others at Wounded Knee”. Ray begins to have visions of this place – his place. He begins to understand his people and what they are teaching him. When a piece of evidence is found that has the power to clear Jimmy Looks Twice, wrongfully accused of murder, Maggie Eagle Bear tells him, “That’s not power Ray. That’s paper. Power is a rain storm; that river right there. That’s what I have to protect! If Jimmy goes to prison for being a warrior, that’s what he accepts. That’s our way.” When Ray comes upon Jimmy at Grandpa Reaches, he pleads with Jimmy to flee or “they’ll kill” him. Jimmy looks Ray in eye, “Sometimes they have to kill us. They have to kill us, because they can’t break our spirit. We choose the right to be who we are. We know the difference between the reality of freedom, and the illusion of freedom. There is a way to live with the earth and a way not to live with the earth. We choose the way of earth. It’s about power, Ray.” It is this ‘power’ that ultimately frees the reservation traditionalists from their corrupt overseers, and Ray Levoy from his shallow life as the Washington redskin, who now identifies with – and is proud of – his people.
Perhaps we hold Hollywood to standards that our outside of its purview. If film is simply the outward expression of our collective “inner processes”, then how can we expect a higher standard from these cinematic expressions than we expect from the essence of its fabrication? This is essentially “shooting the messenger” isn’t it? The portrayal of race in film has evolved as our understanding of race has evolved. Early films like Battle at Elderbush Gulch (1913) depicting blood thirsty pillaging native Americans, or Birth of a Nation (1915) depicting rancorous malicious African Americans, were simply stereotypes that supported our own revisionist history; imagery that justified and even projected our own rancorous, malicious and pillaging history as European American imperialists. The power and endurance of these stereotypes on the social construct are commensurate with our own ignorance and/or insolence of the truth.
With help from our own victims, it would take a willingness to face our collective guilt to begin to explore these truths. Groups like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and the National Film Committee of the Association on American Indian Affairs, worked to show us that we couldn’t move forward as one nation, unless we understood the true history of its people, as self-incriminating as it may be. The betterment of our society requires a fundamental and unsullied understanding of who we are as a society. We certainly can expect American film to represent all of our citizens and our very real differences in a true and respectful manner, but only to the extent that we expect the same of ourselves.
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