Reel Injun at the Arkansas Studies Institute

October 26, 2010

It was just over a year ago I wrote about Canadian Cree filmmaker Neil Diamond’s documentary Reel Injun: On the Trail of the Hollywood Indian.

I promised to keep you apprised as to when you could see it. So here you go: There will be a free screening of the film at 7 p.m. at the Arkansas Studies Institute, Room 124 on Thursday Oct. 28.(The film is a joint presentation of the Arkansas Educational Television Network (AETN) and public radio station KUAR.

It’s an entertaining, though serious, documentary about the way Indians have been portrayed in movies. It uses Diamond’s cross-continental trek from his home in Canada through the American heartland and on to Hollywood in a “res car” (a dilapidated auto common to Indian reservations; there was a ’65 Chevelle in Chris Eyre’s 1998 movie Smoke Signals that only ran in reverse) as a narrative hook on which to hang various clips and interviews with Indians (including Russell Means, activist-poet John Trudell, musician Robbie Robertson and actors Wes Studi, Graham Greene and Adam Beach) and Hollywood observers and critics (including Clint Eastwood and Jim Jarmusch).

Diamond handles the archival footage judiciously, using clips that are as hilarious (as when Diamond translates what some Indian actors were really saying when they spoke their own languages on camera) as they are appalling, and never letting the film’s tone slip into stridency.

Diamond is less interested in expressing Michael Moore-style outrage than examining how these portrayals shaped the image of Indians, and tracing the filmic evolution of the depiction of Indians from Rousseauian noble savages to bloodthirsty Calibans. John Ford’s Stagecoach is considered a watershed event, Crazy Horse is posited as the inspiration for the “mystic warrior” paradigm, and Diamond looks on bemusedly as pale young summer campers paint their bodies, leap around and whoop in imitation of the inaccurate stereotypes they’ve consumed.

Of particular concern is the cognitive dissonance experienced by Indians who watch Hollywood Westerns and see themselves depicted as either feral brutes or holy fools. The film is further informed by brief sketches of movie Indians (and pretend Indians) from silent star Chief Buffalo Child Long Lance (born Sylvester Clark Long), whose career was derailed when his mixed ancestry was exposed, to Chief Dan George and Iron Eyes Cody — a second-generation Italian-American who may have come to believe in his own imposture.

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