Monday, July 15, 2013

Indians in the Movies

I saw the new version of The Lone Ranger over the weekend and it gave me a lot to think about... not in a good way. I have the sense that it started life as a shallow, but coherent, screenplay that was overloaded with so much junk in development that we're left with a fast-moving mess that relies on over the top special effects to hide its many shortcomings. It looks like it wants to be a fresh Little Big Man style retelling of the classic character's origin. It fails horribly.

Maybe I'll do a full review later. for right now I want to comment on the movie's use of Native Americans, and their portrayal in movies in general.

The movie starts with a young boy visiting a museum of the wild west in San Francisco in the 1930s. He sees a display labeled "The Noble Savage in his Natural Habitat" in which the display "Savage" is actually a very old Tonto, who has apparently been hired to stand there and pretend to be a mannequin.

It's a bad way to start. For one thing, it's a framing device that is blatantly stolen from Little Big Man with some variations, for another, the intent is clearly to show the racism of a society that would put "noble savages" on display like this. Yet, that's pretty much what the movie does itself.

In the radio shows, Tonto was a Potawatomai, though what a member of that people--usually found in the woodlands of the Great Lakes region--was doing in Texas was never explained. In the movie, Tonto becomes a Comanche, which makes a lot more sense; the Comanche really did live in the Lone Star state. Unfortunately, there's nothing about Tonto or the other Native people in the movie that seems very Comanche. In the big calvary vs. Indians battle, the Comanche are all on foot, despite the fact that the Comanche were a horse culture. Tonto claims that he is hunting evil spirits called wendigos and calls the Lone Ranger "Kemosabe" which he explains is Comanche for "wrong brother." In fact, Kemosabe is not Comanche for anything, it's an Ojibwe word and you can get a little more on the linguistics here. A wendigo is a Native American evil spirit but it comes from the Algonquin peoples of the northern Atlantic woodlands. Different language, different culture, different people.

Why does this irritate me? It's all Native American culture, right?

While that has often been the attitude in Hollywood, It does irritate me. There's as much difference between the culture of the Comanche and the Cree, or the Cheyenne, or the Seminole peoples as between the Greek, Irish and Russian cultures. It makes no more sense to have generic Indians than it does to have generic Europeans.

But generic stereotypes are all we get in The Lone Ranger. There are generic Christian missionaries, generic prostitutes with hearts of gold, generic cavalrymen, generic railroad tycoons, generic psychotic outlaws, generic naive tenderfoots (tenderfeet?) from back east and especially generic Indians. Even Tonto's distinctive costume comes from non-specific view of Native peoples. It was inspired by the painting, "I am Crow" which artist Kirby Sattler freely admits is imaginary and not based on any specific Native culture.

When you go for some sort of generic Native American culture, the result is always going to be shallower than if you actually delve into a specific culture and all its richness. I think there was a noble intent in the movie to have a more positive portrayal of Native people and get rid of the negative stereotypes, and I commend them for that. But positive stereotypes are still stereotypes. Over the years, the portrayal of Native Americans has swung from the "nature's noblemen" to bloodthirsty savages, to spiritual warriors, close to nature. All too seldom they have been portrayed as real people, with their own complex cultures and their own individual personalities.

It would really be nice to see the movies get to that point.


Brad Mengel said...

I got to thinking about what you said after I saw the movie. Tonto's tribe was killed he would have wandered around America interacting with other tribes, perhaps trying to explain what happened. So he would pick up the idea of the wendigo and perhaps terms like Kemo Sabe. He may have even been adopted into a Potawatomai tribe. Which explains why the Comanche tribe in the movie say that Tonto is making these things up.

Of course I could be overthinking things.

Matthew Baugh said...

LOL! It's a theory to run with. I'm afraid it doesn't make me feel any better about the movie, though.

Virtual Stranger said...

On the film side...

The screenplay was originally written by Rossio & Elliot, the two guys behind Pirates of the Caribbean. They'd written a supernatural thriller (along the lines of PotC) with the wendigo, nature out of balance, and silver bullets being used to kill the beasties.

Then Depp and Verbinski started making bizarre demands and requests that didn't fit the story, and when Rossio & Elliot said "no" another screenwriter was brought in who just added anything Depp and Verbinski talked about... :(