“Trudell” obviously is a labor of love, but that may not be such a good thing. More hagiography than history, Heather Rae’s long-in-production portrait of Native American activist and poet John Trudell has the uncritically admiring feel of authorized biography. Technically uneven pic, shot over 13 years in various video and film formats, is best suited for niche fests, pubcast showcases and not-for-profit outlets.
Most arresting section covers Trudell’s involvement with 1969-71 occupation of Alcatraz Island by Native Americans, an incident that helped spark the growth of the “Red Pride” movement. Pic covers ground already examined in James M. Fortier’s “Alcatraz Is Not an Island” (2001 docu included a Trudell interview), but fixes tighter focus on Trudell’s emergence as a dynamic spokesperson for all tribes represented at the occupation.
Rae also details the title subject’s eventful 1973-79 term as chairman of American Indian Movement (AIM), during which Trudell frequently protested the trial, conviction and imprisonment of Leonard Peltier, the Native American charged with killing two FBI agents during a raid on Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota. Case was covered more extensively in another previous docu, Michael Apted’s “Incident at Oglala” (1992), which also featured interviews with Trudell.
“Trudell” remains interesting, but appreciably less compelling, while charting the activist’s evolution into a poet and musician following the mysterious deaths of his wife, children and mothers-in-law in a 1979 house fire that many claim was deliberately set by political enemies. Footage of Trudell in concert as a spoken-word artist accompanied by musicians indicate his work, however impassioned, is very much an acquired taste. Here and elsewhere, however, Trudell comes across as a charismatic figure whose gravely thoughtful demeanor is leavened with self-effacing humor.
Surprisingly, the pic makes relatively little of Trudell’s appearances as supporting actor in such diverse pics as “Smoke Signals,” “Powwow Highway,” “Thunderheart” and “Extreme Measures” (latter two directed by “Oglala” helmer Apted). Val Kilmer and Sam Shepard, top-billed stars of “Thunderheart,” figure prominently among celebs who offer on-screen testimonials to Trudell. Others include Robert Redford, Bonnie Raitt, Kris Kristofferson and Jackson Browne.