One of the unwritten job requirements of a humanities faculty member at a tribal college or university (TCU) is the ability to readily offer media recommendations. It should come as no surprise to my loyal readers that I’m happy to tell anyone who asks (and many who don’t) which new Native books or play scripts are worth their reading. Yet while I’m always pleased to trumpet works in the aforementioned mediums, it’s the search for film recommendations that brings the most people to my office door. Every December as students drop by to collect their graded projects or exams, conversation routinely segues to the question I’m hoping they’ll ask: “Uncle Ryan, have you watched any good films lately?”
While I’ll always love sharing the virtues of new films on the College of Menominee Nation’s campuses, this year I’m compelled to bring my recommendations to the Tribal College Journal faithful. Like many of you, I was angered by the way Native people were unapologetically treated by non-Natives working in cinema this past year, and I hope that I can use whatever influence I have to direct more eyes to the fantastic films we all should be watching instead. My list can’t erase the ignorance that led to Adam Sandler’s The Ridiculous 6’s stereotypical portrayal of Native people, compensate for the Indigenous character Tiger Lily being depicted by the non-Native actress Rooney Mara in Pan, nor atone for the cast and crew of Maze Runner gleefully stealing artifices from a Native burial site. Yet the titles I’m recommending could help renew your faith in certain aspects of the industry.
While these films weren’t all released this past year, they made my list because they’re currently available on streaming services that’ll allow you to enjoy them at your leisure. My hope is that sometime during the semester break you’ll point your browser in their direction and enjoy the work created by some of the most talented Native people working in film today.
- Winter in the Blood. Like the James Welch (Blackfeet) novel it’s based upon, this is a stark film where a man from the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation must overcome a lifetime of loss en route to healing. The main character, Virgil First Raise, is grittily portrayed by Chaske Spencer (Lakota), who shows off acting chops beyond those needed for the role of Sam in The Twilight The film also features the always entertaining Gary Farmer (Cayuga) as the film’s cathartic relief, and the hypnotic Julia Jones (Choctaw/Chickasaw) as the wife Virgil let slip away. Fans of the novel will love that the key scenes and plot points make it into the film—airplane man, the cow, etc.—even if plot-sticklers like me wish that the literal and metaphorical punches would have all been thrown as Welch had written them. The film is beautifully shot and tells a powerful story, but the acting is what makes it extraordinary. (Available on Amazon Video; Netflix)
- Shouting Secrets. Spencer is again fantastic in this wonderful film about a Native family dealing with the tribulations of having a mother on life-support. Spencer plays Wesley, a successful writer who avoids the San Carlos Apache reservation of his youth in part because of the fallout caused by his autobiographical bestseller. The film forces its audiences to suspend their disbelief in some of the hospital scenes, but it makes up for its stumbles by telling a heartwarming story. Moreover, it picked up a slew of awards at multiple film festivals, and nearly every major cast member is a Native actor you’ll recognize from memorable roles past. You’ll love it. (Available on Amazon Video)
- This May Be the Last Time. Seminole director Sterlin Harjo’s first documentary is as compelling as his feature films Four Sheets to the Wind and Barking Water. In this outing he investigates the story of the 1962 disappearance of his grandfather. It’s a personal story that explores the complexities surrounding Pete Harjo’s death in a car crash, his missing body, and the songs sung as his loved ones searched for answers. The pulse of the film is the music, and it confirms the strength and history manifest in a song. The film is very well made and the connections Harjo uncovers will amaze you. (Available on Amazon Video; Netflix)
- The Lesser Blessed. Richard Van Camp’s (Dogrib) coming of age novel receives a skillful adaptation. Joel Evans’ film brings Larry Sole to life in all of his teen angst, debauchery, and love-pining glory set in a fictional town on the Dogrib reserve in Canada’s Northwest Territories. The story is bleak, to be sure, but there’s a lot to root for in this film about the teenager finding his way in a modern world that seems determined to break him. Again, the casting is superb with Kiowa Gordon (Hualapai) portraying Evans’ frienemy, Johnny Beck, and Benjamin Bratt (Peruvian) as Jed, Sole’s sometimes pseudo-father figure. (Available on Amazon Video; Netflix)
- Rhymes for Young Ghouls. If you’ve seen Jeff Barnaby’s (Mi’g Maq) short films From Cherry English and The Colony, you’ll know two things about his filmmaking. First, it’s unblinking; second, he’s one of the best at what he does. Barnaby made a name for himself by telling raw stories of fictionalized aspects of Native life that profoundly resonate with his audience, and this film carries on the tradition. This film stars Mohawk actress Devery Jacobs as Aila, a 15 year-old dealer who manages to avoid attending an Indian boarding school by selling enough drugs to pay the “truancy tax.” When her money is stolen she is forced to combat the fate of her peers. (Available on Amazon Video; Netflix)
This list is hardly definitive, but it’s filled with good cinema that inspires conversations. So go ahead and click on them. In doing so you’ll be helping to celebrate all that’s right in the world of Native film today. If my hunch is correct and you do enjoy them, then you’ll have five more films to recommend to anyone who asks.
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.
Bui, H. (2015, Oct. 7). Mara on “Pan” Casting: “I felt really bad.” http://www.usatoday.com. Retrieved from: http://www.usatoday.com/story/life/2015/10/07/rooney-mara-tiger-lily-casting-controversy-pan-felt-really-bad/73508584/
Calamur, K. (2015, April 24). Native American Actors Walk Off The Set Of Adam Sandler Comedy. http://www.npr.org. Retrieved from: http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2015/04/24/401948991/native-american-actors-walk-off-the-set-of-adam-sandler-comedy
Roteman, S.L. (2015 Oct. 6). Actor Admits to Taking Native American Artifacts on Location in New Mexico. http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com. Retrieved from: http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2015/10/06/actor-admits-taking-native-american-artifacts-location-new-mexico-161985
Sacks, E. (2015, Oct. 4). “Pan” Director Joe Wright Explains Casting Decisions Over “Natives,” Including Rooney Mara, that Sparked Outrage. http://www.nydailynews.com. Retrieved from: http://www.nydailynews.com/entertainment/movies/joe-wright-takes-social-media-flak-actress-cast-pan-article-1.2384546
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.