December 03, 2008

Track record of the Hollywood 11

Someone e-mailed me about the diversity discussion I sat in on at the Red Nation Film Festival. The gist of his comments was that some people work inside the Hollywood system and some work outside it. He implied the studios don't like the latter group--those who protest and cause trouble--and won't hire them.

Maybe so, I replied, but the insiders aren't doing much more than the outsiders in promoting change. Where are all the Native-themed movies and TV shows from those who play by the rules? Did I miss them when I blinked?

This inspired me to revisit my posting on Only 11 Native Writers in Hollywood? What have these Native writers done with their insider access? The article listed four of the 11 Native writers it profiled, so I checked their records on

Micah WrightThe Angry Beavers, Constant Payne, and various video games.Jason GavinGifts of the Seven Grandfathers (2004)--13-minute animated short.Steven JuddAmerican Indian Graffiti: This Thing Life (2003)--self-produced movie of unknown length costing $6,000.Travis WrightCo-wrote Eagle Eye (2008).Hmm. Only Micah Wright has a moderately long list of credits. And only Travis Wright has what I'd call a major credit: the screenplay for Eagle Eye.

Of course, the other seven writers may have done more (though you'd expect the article to highlight the most successful ones). And IMDB's records may be incomplete. And these writers may just be getting started. But this isn't a great track record for the Hollywood 11.

In particular, where are the Native-themed stories? The main reason for hiring Native writers is to benefit from their unique background and perspective. If they end up writing the same kind of stuff as everyone else, what's the point?

Is the point to give Native writers work regardless of what they write? Not in my book. To me, diversity for diversity's sake isn't worth much. If all you're looking for is the next Angry Beavers, you might as well hire the best Beaver writers you can find and ignore their ethnicity.

Blame the system?

Let's note that the Native writers want to write Native stories. As the original article said:Each writer said he realizes that he must strike a delicate balance between their cultures. Each wants to include what he knows about modern American Indians but also must write universal stories to avoid being pegged as a strictly Native American writer.

"You want to be considered a mainstream artist who has the opportunity to access money, frankly, to do the movies," Myers said. "Being pigeonholed can prevent you from having that access. On the other hand, people want to write about what they know best."
We can't tell from this whether these writers are avoiding opportunities to tell Native stories. In some cases, seeking access may be another way of saying "selling out." But we can be fairly sure Hollywood isn't offering these writers many opportunities to tell their stories.

In any case, the point of this posting remains. Hence my final comment to my correspondent: "From what I've seen, it doesn't look like the insiders are doing much better at changing Hollywood than the outsiders. Maybe we need everyone working along their paths in parallel."

Incidentally, Micah Wright has written a comic-book series called STORMWATCH: TEAM ACHILLES. He's also been involved in several controversies over The Angry Beavers and the anti-war books he's published. You gotta admire him for that.

For more on the subject, see Diversity Lacking in Television.


Anonymous said...

Has there ever been a [nationally organized] forum to address this particular lack of diversity issue?

Rob said...

I think the studios and the guilds (Screen Actors Guild, Writers Guild, Directors Guild, etc.) have formed committees and hired executives to address this issue. These organizations have a nationwide reach, and presumably their committees and executives do too. That's not quite the same as a national forum, but it's an attempt to do something about the problem.

For more on the subject, see Diversity Lacking in Television.

Anonymous said...

I thought it might help to think like a Native American screenwriter. Otherwise, it is purely speculative. A Lakota will tell you "Walk in balance." This basically means you need to walk with one foot in each world (White/Indian) on the way to your destiny. Naught all American Indian screenwriters want to write about Rez life so that's a misconception. Why? It limits your topics of discourse. UCLA Professor Hanay Geiogamah onced stated most Indian stories are about relocating off Indian reservations or about Indians trying to find acceptance with their tribe. However, I am not discouraged by the minutia Hollywood is peddling these days as “Native American” stories nor do I want to bury my head in the sand. I am convinced there are unexplored avenues. As I see it there are two ways to handle Native American themes in feature films. First, studios and indie film companies are likely to pick up on subjects that treat Natives as a peripheral topic to the main story but remains Western in-thought & narrative. The other way is full-immersion into American Indian culture. However, we have the potential for reinventing the wheel. It helps to have a crafty writer that can open those tightly closed eyes of general audiences. I am not rejected everything Americana because there is so much we can learn from each other. We (native writers) basically have to prove to ourselves and others that our cinematic journey can translate into something Hollywood understands. $Money$ If you can build a large fan base on your story (like comic books) than you have made yourself an opportunity. Personally, I am tackling the subject of Native America vampires via internet webisodes (plug). Native writers need to see film-making like a new innovation that deserves a good business plan. Let's face it, financiers are taking risks with their monies and you are trying to soften their proverbial fall with good news. Yes, the studios and indie companies are looking for new ways to say old stories. What does that say to you? Convince them your story is a success on a different forum and you have a large fan base to back up you're words. I know it's hard and sometimes I too get down on myself too but you should never lose hope. Teaching non-Indians to think like Indians takes time. My friend back home in South Dakota says "Time is the most valuable thing an [American] Indian can give another person." I say this knowing we (Native writers) are starving for attention. You don't have to convince me Native Americans in the Film Industry have it hard. Don't ask me to set myself on fire either. Poof! I'm done. LOL
damon runninghorse-buckley