It’d be difficult to argue that the hope expressed in the 2009 film Reel Injun hasn’t begun to take seed. In the closing minutes of that watershed documentary, Native filmmakers and critics were confident that the film industry was on the cusp of a new cinematic horizon. In 2016, one would be hard-pressed to doubt their optimism. At no other time in history have so many Indigenous films graced the silver screen, but it’s the strength of the writing, producing, directing, and acting that gives us true cause to celebrate.
To be clear, the films being made today are not universally positive or uplifting affairs, but no one is claiming that they should be. In Reel Injun, the Cheyenne/Arapaho director Chris Eyre stated that Native people frustrated over years of false and minimalizing representations have a simple request of filmmakers—“We’re not asking to be nobles, or righteous, or good all the time. We’re asking to be human.” I’m pleased to report that the films being produced depict cathartic, humanizing stories.
For the second year running, I’m thrilled to recommend some fantastic Native films you can stream. Each one is unique in its story and execution, but together they’re part of a movement that’s inspiring to witness. Simply put, the quality and variety of Native cinema has never been better. Grab some popcorn, set your playlist, and enjoy the best new Native films streaming today.
- Hunt for the Wilderpeople. New Zealand Indigenous director Taika Waititi’s film is a comedic, generational family drama that demands repeated viewings. The young protagonist, Ricky, is a rebellious city kid who is sent to the countryside to reside with his loving Aunt Bella and crotchety Uncle Hec. The film soon finds the mismatched family members on the run in the wilderness trying to duck the foster-care system. A national manhunt ensues and heightens the drama just as the intangible bonds that make them a family begin to blossom. The acting is superb, the setting is breathtaking, the script is captivating, and as the credits roll you’ll understand why Waititi is being trusted to helm the next Thor film—he’s a director who gives his complex films a pulsing heartbeat. (Available on Amazon Video)
- The Seventh Fire. This documentary is jarring in that it’s a bleak depiction of the gang and drug culture on the White Earth reservation in Minnesota. Yet the film is so gripping that one can’t help but be both invested in the characters and frustrated by the unfortunate choices they make. The film focuses on Rob Brown, a gang leader who is sentenced to prison for a fifth time, and his teenage protégé, Kevin. Rob is a stunning presence who is physically fit, outwardly confident, and blessed with poetry chops that makes one wish he’d invested his efforts in academic pursuits. Kevin can’t see beyond his desire to take his soon-to-be incarcerated idol’s place as kingpin. Both men have people who care about them, talents they could nurture, and choices to make that’ll have lasting consequences. (Available on Amazon Video)
- The Advocate. This film features decorated Lakota actor Michael Spears as an activist incarcerated in a small town jail during the 1973 Wounded Knee standoff. The film takes some liberties with history and is in no way a documentary. Rather it’s a fictional story that tries to capture the feeling of being imprisoned for crimes of principle. Spears and his fellow prisoner, portrayed by Chadwick Brown, are superb in their roles, and the supporting cast flush out the necessary sympathetic and apathetic roles needed to make the story resonate. One can’t help but draw comparisons to Standing Rock and the incarceration of the Water Protectors. (Available on Amazon Video)
- Songs My Brother Taught Me. This film is not just another heartbreaking film set on the Pine Ridge reservation—it’s one of the best films ever set on that fertile landscape. This may be because so much of this film about young siblings searching for hope is based in reality. According to the director, from an interview included in the DVD extras, this fictional film is 80% true to the actual life of John Reddy, the young man portraying the film’s protagonist. The film has a slow build, but in the end it offers a rewarding experience that’ll stay with viewers long after their browsers close. (Available on Amazon Video; Netflix)
- Drunktown’s Finest. This film centers on the escapist aspirations of three young Natives residing in a fictitious Navajo reservation border town. Written and directed by Institute of American Indian Arts faculty member Sydney Freeland (Diné), this film is a character study that centers on rich personas who viewers long to root for. There’s a father-to-be who’s joining the military to support his family, a transvestite prostitute who dreams of being a model, and an adopted young woman fulfilling the norms of her religion while longing to know her birthparents. This is the first film from a director whose next outing will be both a Netflix Original and a feature at the Sundance Film Festival. (Available on Amazon Video)
How fortunate we all are that the golden age of Native cinema is coinciding with the proliferation of streaming services. This serendipitous relationship offers each of us a pass to enjoy the new horizon. That alone is cause for hope, and after viewing these films from the comfort of our homes we each should have optimism for both the future of Native cinema and the wealth of entertainment that’s just one click away.
Ryan Winn teaches English, theater, and communication at College of Menominee Nation, where he has been recognized as the American Indian College Fund’s Faculty Member of the Year.
Editor’s note: The opinions expressed in the Inquisitive Academic or any other opinion columns published by the Tribal College Journal (TCJ) do not necessarily reflect the opinions of TCJ or the American Indian Higher Education Consortium.