Premiering at the Toronto film festival just 10 days after “Hostiles” debuted at Telluride, “Woman Walks Ahead” has the opposite problem. Both are impeccably directed, gorgeously photographed Westerns, set within a couple years of one another during the waning days of the U.S. military campaign to slaughter and subdue the Native Americans. “Hostiles” treats the Natives as its title implies, as something fearfully different from ourselves, whereas “Woman Walks Ahead” takes a more patronizing approach, focusing on Indian rights advocate Caroline Weldon — although as white savior stories go, it’s still progress to find one that lives up to such a feminist title as this.
In recent years, Hollywood has started to re-engage with some of the darker chapters of American history, from slavery to genocide, while generally lagging where gender equality is concerned. With “Woman Walks Ahead,” director Susanna White adds her own firm voice to the dialogue — boldly embodied by Jessica Chastain — and together, director and star bring their distaff perspective to the chapter immediately before the massacre at Wounded Knee (“Hostiles” centers on U.S. cavalry officers who participated in the bloodbath).
That imminent tragedy casts a long shadow over the film, which rather disingenuously introduces Weldon as an artist who made the trip to North Dakota in order to make a portrait of legendary Lakota holy man Sitting Bull. It’s true that Weldon would go on to paint Sitting Bull, but it’s not the reason she made the trip. As a member of the National Indian Defense Assn., Weldon (who was already in her late 50s) was determined to get involved with the greater cause — in this case, protecting the Lakota from having their land “negotiated” away from them, via the Dawes Act, which attempted to break up Native tribes by subdividing reservation lands, with the end goal of forcing them to assimilate into white society.
Weldon knew this when she took the train to Fort Yates, N.D., though the character Chastain plays is decidedly less calculating. Because screenwriter Steven Knight has given her the film’s opening narration, we have no reason but to take Weldon at her word: She has come to paint Sitting Bull, and the rest of her activism emerges from the deplorable treatment she discovers once she arrives. Upon writing to the commanding officer (Cíarin Hinds, so effortlessly resolute), Weldon is immediately labeled a “New York liberal,” coming to stir things up. On the train, Col. Silas Groves (Sam Rockwell) reiterates the assumption, telling the well-dressed lady, “You have that certain look … [of] someone with good intentions.”
Oddly, the movie prefers to treat Weldon as someone whose politics didn’t necessarily motivate her visit to the reservation, as if her humanism is somehow deeper or purer if it wasn’t pre-motivated by a desire to defend Sitting Bull and his people. Such revisionism appears to be motivated primarily by dramatic concerns: It’s a better story, if she arrives naïve and becomes an activist on site, provoked by the twin insults of racism and sexism she encounters — the sheer ugliness of which runs in direct contrast with movie’s breathtaking widescreen vistas (shot in New Mexico and North Dakota, on par with the work of exec producer Ed Zwick).
As in Eileen Pollack’s 2002 book, “Woman Walking Ahead: In Search of Catherine Weldon and Sitting Bull,” director White seems to identify personally with the challenge that a white woman faces, even today, in attempting to sympathetically depict the great Sioux leader. And yet, as sensitive as the film is to capturing Sitting Bull himself (played here by Canadian actor Michael Greyeyes, a good decade younger than the character), it falls short of extending the same interest in any of the other Native characters (the only other one with a significant part is Chaske Spencer, who works as a local lawman).
The film is engaging enough when following traditional beats, as Weldon stands up to the local bullies — most notably Rockwell’s character, who’s both condescending and a brute — and refuses to board the next train home. She eventually manages to meet Sitting Bull, and the scene is one of the film’s most memorable, as Weldon adopts a kind of patronizing pidgin English in order to make her pitch, telling him how she crossed “many rivers” to reach him. Knight’s script has a few laughs at her expense as her big-city ways clash with the reality of frontier life, but mostly, it depicts Weldon as a woman who approaches her subject with that most necessary of traits: humility. Combine that with the courage needed to stand up to the men around her — both the whites and Sitting Bull himself — and she emerges a character it’s easy to understand why Chastain would be drawn to play.
Few actresses in the history of the medium have as consistently gravitated toward playing strong, self-reliant heroines, and “Woman Walks Ahead” is yet another notch in Chastain’s belt, so to speak: Yes, the movie teases the possibility of romance between Sitting Bull and his “white squaw” (and in so doing, makes her seem a bit like one of those prison groupies who proposes marriage to men sitting on Death Row), but that seems a natural extension of the premise that she traveled cross-country to meet him. More importantly, it’s true to her role in helping the Lakota people understand and oppose the government-mandated Allotment Act.
Some of these scenes are a bit pro-forma, including a debate that reaches for a rather contrived “I am Spartacus” swell of audience sentiment and an apocryphal detail involving Rico (a circus horse, gifted to Sitting Bull by Buffalo Bill), who reportedly danced at the sound of a gunshot, including the one that killed his owner. Still, behind these emotional manipulations is a politically complex script. The one thing White — like so many well-meaning directors — doesn’t seem to grasp is that Native Americans today face a challenge greater than lack of representation, and that’s misrepresentation. “Woman Walks Ahead” offers dimension to its leading lady, but holds its Native characters to the same old surface stereotypes. Such a movie is a step in the right direction, but farther behind than it seems to realize.