Pubcasters and fest programmers doubtless will appreciate the attention-grabbing potential of “Reel Injun,” a sincere and straightforward doc about cinematic depictions of Native Americans from the silent era to contemporary times. Produced with backing from the National Film Board of Canada, the pic follows Cree Indian helmer Neil Diamond on a cross-country road trip as he interviews Native American critics, academics, cineastes and standup comics, along with a few non-Indian notables (including Clint Eastwood and Jim Jarmusch), to fashion a mostly critical but ultimately hopeful history lesson. Commercial prospects are limited, though global tube markets may be receptive.
“Reel Indian” duly notes that, despite the relatively sympathetic treatment of Native American characters in silent pics, the indelible stereotype of the bloodthirsty savage was established fairly early in talkies. John Wayne movies in general, and “Stagecoach” in particular, are recalled with particular disdain.
Docu has more than its share of humorous moments, especially when Diamond and his subjects discuss various historical and anthropological inaccuracies of Westerns that cast conspicuously Caucasian actors in red-face makeup — ranging from Elvis Presley to Charles Bronson. As one interviewee notes, real Indians seldom if ever wore headbands — but pale-faced actors certainly needed them to hold their wigs in place during action scenes.
More often, however, the tone of “Reel Injun” is respectfully serious, though well short of angry, while focusing on how the stereotypical depictions of marauding redskins affected the self-images of Native Americans. In this context, actors such as Chief Dan George, Graham Greene and Adam Beach are viewed as significant role models, and Native filmmakers such as Chris Eyre (“Smoke Signals”) and Zacharias Kunuk (“The Fast Runner”) are hailed as invaluable truth-tellers as well as entertaining storytellers.
Clint Eastwood — whose own Westerns, “Reel Injun” neglects to emphasize, have almost never trafficked in Native American stereotypes — appears briefly to talk about working opposite George in “The Outlaw Josey Wales,” and his casting of Beach as a sympathetically rendered Ira Hayes in “Flags of Our Fathers.”
Thesp Sacheen Littlefeather receives plenty of screen time while recalling the 1973 Oscar ceremony where she famously refused the actor award for Marlon Brando, who sent her there to protest mistreatment of Native Americans by Hollywood and the U.S. government. This gesture, “Reel Injun” reminds auds, was in part Brando’s show of solidarity with Indian activists who at the time were under police assault after seizing the South Dakota town of Wounded Knee.
Film clips are well chosen, though some inevitably will cite the omission of particularly egregious pics or scenes. Tech values are fine.