Documentaries that revolve around trials often pose problems of presentation, particularly if they involve larger issues. “Holy Man,” Jennifer Jessum and Simon Joseph’s film about a revered Lakota medicine man wrongfully sentenced to almost 25 years without parole for allegedly molesting his grandchildren, builds very slowly, as the full extent of this miscarriage of justice and its place within an ongoing context of persecution are only gradually revealed. This solid, well-structured expose with a touch of Native American mysticism should raise awareness and indignation in equal measure as the film gains wider exposure.
In 1991, a tribal court fully investigated the indictment against Douglas White, brought him to trial and dismissed all charges for lack of evidence. A year later, the U.S. government, for no apparent reason, retried the case 100 miles from the reservation before an all-white jury that found him guilty (double jeopardy protection apparently not extended to Native Americans). Helmers Jessum and Joseph emphasize the self-interest of the family member who leveled the charges, the blatant inconsistencies in testimony, the absence of physical proof, the bigotry of certain jurors and the clear inadequacies of the defense. Nevertheless, some lingering doubt could remain that the documentary may be presenting only one side of the story.
Once the filmmakers examine history, however, motives and patterns become clearer. As it turns out, this is not the first confrontation between White and the U.S. government. Archival footage from the 1970s illustrates the armed standoff at Wounded Knee between the FBI and Lakota protestors, demanding a return of the treaty-protected Black Hills. Lakota leaders such as famed ’70s activist Russell Means attest to White’s participation at Wounded Knee and his importance as a spiritual leader to the Lakota people.
Going back to the 19th century, the filmmakers trace a consistent legacy of murder and repression, including brief re-enactments of Crazy Horse’s assassination in 1877 and the original 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee.
Scattered throughout the docu, in stark contrast to the violence, are dramatizations of White’s fairly spectacular healing ceremony, in which a blanket is thrown over his head and fastened with ropes around his body, and he is slowly lowered face-first to the ground. The filmmakers gather multiple testimonials from those physically and spiritually aided by the Lakota medicine man, who continued his work with Indians and whites while in prison.
By the time Jessum and Joseph, taking a more activist role, help present new evidence to the court, with the same federal judge who handed down his draconian sentence presiding, the ruling on efforts to retry the case no longer seems a surprise.
The filmmakers play up the contrast between the government’s hidden agenda and hard-to-fathom logic with the transparent sacredness of Lakota rituals and the tribe’s open communion with the topography, flora and fauna (emphasis on soaring eagles) of the Black Hills.