Directed by: Neil Diamond, Catherine Bainbridge, and Jeremiah Hayes
Premise: A documentary that surveys the depiction of Native Americans in motion pictures.
What Works: There is a field of documentaries about the relationship between cinema and American culture. Pictures like The Celluloid Closet, which deals with depictions of homosexuals, A Decade Under the Influence, which surveys the New Hollywood era, and The American Nightmare, which explores the horror films of the 1970s, do an excellent job of explaining how motion pictures both reflect and shape the cultural and political currents in American history. Reel Injun is another of these documentaries and it ranks among the best of them. The picture is led by filmmaker Neil Diamond (not to be confused with the singer-songwriter of the same name) as he travels across the United States making note of Native American landmarks and visiting Native communities while also surveying the history of Native Americans in Hollywood cinema. This structure connects and contrasts the imagery of the Hollywood Indian with the realities of Native life. Reel Injun stands out in its examination of the relationship between cinema and American culture because the filmmakers recognize that the influence is not one-sided. As demonstrated in the film, Hollywood moviemakers gave expression to ideas and concepts already in the culture but their presentation both reinforced and reshaped those ideas, which in turn influenced future movies. This is more sophisticated than the average documentary on motion pictures and the filmmakers and the commentators provide smart analysis. The historical organization of Reel Injun works well as it is able to characterize the evolution of the on screen image of Native Americans through an examination of specific films such as Stage Coach, Little Big Man, Billy Jack, Pocahontas, Dances With Wolves, and Smoke Signals and the careers of popular actors such as John Wayne and Iron Eyes Cody. One of the takeaways from Reel Injun is that the popular image of Native Americans—as well as their own self-image—is inseparable from the cinema. This is an important epiphany not just for Native viewers but for all American audiences as it reveals how the movies, and the Western genre in particular, have shaped our view of American history and who we are in relationship to that history.
What Doesn’t: Like many documentaries that survey decades worth of history, Reel Injun sometimes suffers from its approach and a few sections are too superficial. This is most notable in the final section in which the filmmakers explore emerging Native filmmakers who are exerting their own voices and making movies about their own culture. This section of the film, which concentrates on Smoke Signals and The Fast Runner, puts forth the argument that Native filmmakers have now taken control of the means of filmmaking production. The argument is shortsighted as it ignores the limitations of distribution and exhibition but it also does not get into the perils of cultural filmmaking such as the tension between personal artistic expression and the filmmakers’ commitments or responsibilities, if any, to the community. Also notably absent from Reel Injun is any discussion of the documentary Nanook of the North and Terrence Malick’s 2005 feature The New World or metaphorical depictions of Natives in science fiction and fantasy features like Avatar.
DVD extras: None.
Bottom Line: Reel Injun is an important documentary and one that manages to transcend its topic. This isn’t just a history of the movies. It’s an examination of the way in which American culture understands its own history and how cinema figures into that understanding.
Episode: #447 (July 14, 2013)