Travis Bickle, Michael Corleone, and Daniel Plainview all represent a dark part of ourselves. They are also understandable, complicated characters. Oftentimes they dip their toes in evil affairs. But regardless they represent a deep part of our humanity.
At its height, Film can be like a beautiful piece of music that brings a tear to your eye, even though you might not understand why; it can make you laugh at the most absurd things we see in ourselves; it can change a life here and there.
I grew up on Indian reservations. The first schools I attended were tribal schools. I learned some Ojibwe when I was a child. I came around to film shortly thereafter and found myself loving the language of cinema. I grew up with “Taxi Driver,” “The Godfather,” “There Will Be Blood,” “American Psycho,” as well as all the beautiful, dark, conflicted stories of American genre films. When I decided to make films myself, this was the cinematic language that I knew; brooding, sometimes heinous anti-heroes. When I decided to set a story in the world that I knew most intimately, American Indian Country, it made sense that my instinct was to write about a singular, tortured man.
I never gave a second thought as to whether I was writing about a community that didn’t have an established perspective in cinema, or if I was saddled with a responsibility to draw a positive depiction of Native people; I was just writing a story set in my world, using the language that I love. Yet, some of the reception by non-Native audiences has been framed this way, assuming that the function of any cinematic work by a filmmaker from a specific background was to serve as a promotion of that community to the dominant culture, rather than a piece of art for its own community. These are the hoops that diverse filmmakers often have to jump through to make the work they want to make.
Did Paul Thomas Anderson have to answer questions regarding his responsibility over his depiction of Anglo-Americans after making There Will Be Blood? Was he asked why he wasn’t making films that were lifting up members of that community? Or was his work taken as a piece of poetry, for better or worse?
What some non-Native audiences didn’t understand was that Natives would understand Makwa, “Wild Indian’s” complicated, oftentimes evil protagonist. The Native audiences didn’t look at Makwa as though he represented all Native people. They simply knew people like Makwa, an indigenous man who misascribed the worst of himself to his origin on an Indian reservation. In a film about resentment, he’s a man who resented his roots. The importance of the opportunity for filmmakers like me to tell the stories that they want to tell in the manner they want to tell them is equality at its finest.
I appreciate the way that the industry is shifting to include voices like mine. Regardless of the small amount of pointed negative reception, the kindness that I’ve seen toward my work within the industry – from both executives and creatives like Barry Jenkins, who recently wrote a flattering review of “Wild Indian” on Twitter – has been incredible. It has truly changed my life. I hope that more filmmakers with backgrounds similar to mine are able to find the opportunity to be true to their own voices, and to be emboldened to speak to the issues that affect them specifically.
Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr. is the director, writer and producer of “Wild Indian.” Corbine Jr. was featured on Variety‘s 10 Directors to Watch earlier this year.