April 13, 2008

Choctaw villain in Broken English

In Broken English (2007), a romantic comedy by Zoe Cassavetes, Parker Posey plays a thirtysomething New Yorker looking for love. Her first date is with Nick Gable (Justin Theroux), an actor. As the NY Times review put it:The film’s smartest sequence finds Nora flouting her hotel’s no-fraternization policy to go out with a V.I.P. guest, a rising movie star named Nick Gable (Justin Theroux, in the movie’s most complex and surprising performance).

Nick, a man-child with a mohawk that appears to be woven from Sasquatch fur, presents himself as a truth-seeking artist who craves a simple life with a woman who’s not in show business. We quickly deduce a truth that Nora wills herself not to see: Nick is a pure narcissist who sees his date with Nora as an acting challenge—an audition for a one-night stand.

These early, squirm-inducing scenes portend a film that will refute Hollywood romantic comedy’s wish-fulfillment tendencies with a rude dose of reality. Then the hunky, puppy dog Frenchman shows up, and the film’s daring impulses exit stage left.
We first think Nick is a punk rocker because of his haircut. But it seems he has that 'do for a reason. Fresh from his role in Hit Man, this white boy's current assignment is playing an Indian.

As Nick explains it, he's starring in a movie called Rain Dancer as a mohatu (sp?), a Choctaw medicine man "who used to travel around poisoning the European settlers. He's kind of a bad guy, I guess."

Let's think about this a minute. The Choctaw word for medicine man is alikchi, but maybe mohatu was a personal name or another kind of healer. I don't think the Choctaw had mohawks, but Indians in the Ohio Valley did, and that isn't so far away. I don't think the Choctaw did rain dances, but Indians in the Southwest did, and that isn't so far away.

I can't swear that no Choctaw with a mohawk ever did a rain dance, but I'm betting against it. More likely, Cassavetes threw three unrelated stereotypes together to create a character bit. Indians do rain dances...Indians wear mohawks...and Indians kill whites.

Add the idea of a pale-faced Anglo playing a dark-skinned Choctaw and you have a perfect storm of ridiculousness. Although some Choctaws may be light-skinned today, recall that Nick is playing a traditional Indian from the 19th century. Because they lived in the South and intermarried with blacks, Choctaws are likely to be darker than average, not lighter.

As we saw in Next Step Wonderland, even the smallest mention of Indians gets things wrong. Even smart indie films portray Indians as primitives and savages. No wonder Indians can't trust anyone but themselves to get things right.

As for Broken English, I'd say it's your typical New York-based independent chick flick. There's nothing terribly bad about it but nothing wonderfully good about it, either. Rob's rating: 7.0 of 10.

For more on the subject, see The Best Indian Movies.

Below:  The official trailer basically tells the whole story and quotes the best lines. If you love the trailer, you'll probably like the movie.

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