I could, and sometimes do, wax philosophical, intellectual, and academic about the Native films I enjoy. But that sort of analysis can get pretty boring, and saps what I love about movies. I watch to be entertained! I don’t necessarily want to ponder the state of my Native being when I’m just trying to watch stuff blow up on screen. I prefer bombast and popcorn. Put it this way: instead of seeing “Thunderheart” in theaters, I saw “Wayne’s World” a third time toward the end of its cinematic run.
Growing up when I did, I became a consumer byproduct of early MTV, HBO, and “Skinemax” access, of USA network action flicks and Nick at Night reruns. IF I took note of Native cinema (or more accurately Natives IN cinema) back then, it was when they weren’t being obviously Native: Graham Greene in “Die Hard with a Vengeance,” Wes Studi in “Heat” or Cher in “Moonstruck” (just kidding).
With all this in mind, and because November is Native American Heritage Month, here are five Indigenous films that stick with me because I love them as much as any “Wayne’s World” or Van Damme flick.
I can’t stress enough that I DON’T mean the 2007 remake. If you go out and watch that film based on this recommendation, then that’s entirely on you and also shame on you. This superior and OG “Pathfinder” film is about a young Sami man who helps to save his people from marauders in Medieval Norway.
I was 6 or 7 when I watched this movie, and since I caught it in the same VHS bundle as “Willow” and “The Princess Bride,” it lives in the same warm spot in my heart as those precious films. It was just an adventure movie to me, and when I learned sometime later who the Sami people are, and that this was made by one of them, it made me irrationally proud. I felt like it was made for me.
“Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner” (2001)
I know this is on Billy Luther’s list this month. And I hope it’s on other peoples’ lists. I used to say that this was the only Native film ever made. What I meant is, it’s Joseph Campbell’s monomyth stuff, but only in the vaguest terms (oh, does the hero leave and come back changed, Campbell? God. It’s like a newspaper horoscope…”something will happen to the characters, isn’t that weird?” … God, it’s like we’re all humans or something… I digress).
What sets “Atanarjuat” apart is that it’s wholly of its place and culture, and nobody except someone FROM that place and culture could’ve made it. It’s so insanely good and gorgeous and dramatic and funny and heart-wrenching and ugh. I might just go watch it before I finish this list.
“Harold of Orange” (1984)
Harold and his group of trickster warriors tease, teach, and shuck a liberal foundation’s board members. Written by Gerald Vizenor and starring the late, great Charlie Hill, “Harold of Orange” feels like a spiritual successor to “Putney Swope,” but with a Native bent. A comedy group I co-founded, the 1491s (shameless plug!), wouldn’t exist if not for the people involved in this film. And I mean that literally, as my dear ol’ dad Bill Pensoneau is one of the “Warriors of Orange.” Looking at this film, I can’t help but wonder how much more mainstream success Charlie Hill would’ve attained if he had access to YouTube or the like. Easy distribution and word of mouth have shifted the filmmaking landscape, opening doors to diverse voices. But that doesn’t mean we weren’t always making statements. “Harold of Orange” is one such statement.
“This May Be The Last Time” (2014)
I hate to say how much I like this film. I do. Director Sterlin Harjo is a brother to me. We started a comedy group together (shameless plug #2!). So it’s hard for me to give a true compliment without the accompanying teasing and ribbing. But I could honestly watch “This May Be The Last Time” over and over again.
It’s a documentary about the origin of songs, particularly Creek hymns, juxtaposed with a personal exploration of a family mystery. Now, Oklahoma isn’t wealthy and the air is muggy. It’s not Hollywood.
Usually, when someone shoots something “rural” or “country,” there’s a tendency to focus on poverty or quirk, lumping people into caricature. But Sterlin shoots his subjects with all the love he can muster, allowing the viewer to see his homelands the way he does: with abject and total beauty that puts a lump in my throat and a tear in my eye just thinking about it. Whatever. It’s fine. Not even that great.
“Falls Around Her” (2018)
A Native lead. A Native female lead. A Native female lead who’s over 50. A Native female lead over 50 in a movie directed by a Native director. A Native female lead over 50 in a movie directed by a Native female director. A Native female lead over 50 in a movie directed by Native female writer/director. A Native female lead over 50 in a movie directed by a Native female writer/director, where the story isn’t about Native people bemoaning their station as Natives but instead is a vital and thriving people who are just trying to figure out their lives like everyone else but somehow the film also has genuine thrills and also it’s unfair how talented Tantoo Cardinal is…
Point is, don’t sit here reading this. Go out and watch this movie. Representation matters and this is a bit of representation to be proud of.
Migizi Pensoneau (Ponca/Ojibwe) has worked for both major and independent production companies as a writer and a producer for film and television. Pensoneau has covered scripts for Warner Brothers and the Sundance Institute and has written several published pieces on the interaction of Native Americans and popular culture. He received his MFA in Screenwriting at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, N.M., and continues to write and tour for the comic group he co-founded, the 1491s. Most recently, Pensoneau finished writing on “Barkskins,” an original series by Fox and NatGeo, and “Reservation Dogs,” an upcoming comedy on FX.