February 28, 2009

Casting issues aren't important?

In Tribes Should Make Movies, reader Kalisetsi chided me for focusing so much on Hollywood casting decisions. I answers some of her (?) objections there, but I have more to say.

Naturally I don't agree that casting issues are unimportant, Kalisetsi. Casting is one of the many areas where Natives are fighting for better access and representation today. Funding and distributing NDN-made movies to the mainstream is still a dream, but casting decisions are affecting public perceptions now.

Here's a relevant comment (slightly edited) from Natives Outraged Over Twilight:When you eradicate a people from existence in film/TV/entertainment/news (aka basically removing them from public view in this "modern day society") we might as well not exist already!

That is what is being done here. On top of that, the director, production company and casting directors are breaking SAG union regulations with their actions in casting and attempted casting thus far, lying outright about people's ancestral backgrounds for roles (disgusting).
Discrimination in the workplace? Hmm...sounds like an important issue to me.

Kalisetsi, your position is like saying Natives shouldn't worry about being represented in the Obama administration or budget. They should worry only about getting their own governments in order. I.e., they should worry only about themselves and not about external forces over which they have little control.

In reality, most tribes are worried about both federal legislation and spending and their own governmental processes. It's not one or the other and it doesn't have to be.

The most important issues

A few more thoughts on why the casting issue is worth covering:

1) If it isn't obvious, casting issues are a subset of stereotype issues. I explain why stereotype issues are important constantly--for instance, in Identifying Indians with Stereotypes.

2) As with Indian mascots vs. genocide in Tibet or Darfur, I claim we don't have to focus solely on one issue or the other. We can multitask and deal with many issues at once.

3) Natives have protested their portrayals in movies for decades. Hollywood responded with more realistic portrayals in the 1960s and '70s. So activism has led to exactly kind of change you deem impossible.

4) I think I've made my support for independent filmmaking clear. In addition to my recent articles on Crusoe and non-Natives cast as Natives, I've written articles on Native film festivals, The Exiles, and the Creative Spirit competition for Indian Country Today.

5) Let me reiterate that ICT essentially solicited my article on non-Native casting. If this Indian-owned newspaper thinks the subject is important, who am I to disagree? <g>

6) I've also posted a lot on such DIY (do-it-yourself) efforts as Mile Post 398, March Point, and the Red Nation Film Festival. If anyone thinks I'm neglecting NDN-made movies...well, sorry, I don't see it.

7) Readers, especially newer ones, may think I've focused too much attention on Twilight. But popular movies are in the theaters, and thus in the news, for several months. My coverage reflects that. Longtime readers know I posted a ton of commentaries on movies such as Apocalypto, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull when they were "hot." Now they're old news and I don't mention them much anymore.

In short, the only "bias" here is that I consider movies an important force in the popular culture. If everyone's talking about casting decisions such as those in Twilight, I'm gonna talk about them too. If Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Spider-Man, The Dark Knight, or Watchmen presented Native issues, I'd be all over them as well.

Anyway, if you think I've neglected a valid topic, e-mail me. Better yet, write about it yourself. I'm open to ideas.

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


Anonymous said...

Now if you would only reply to her post here:


I also await replies on these posts:



kalisetsi said...


Yes, I am a she :)

I disagree with you that funding and distributing NDN-made movies (BETTER, if not immediately on a large-scale to the mainstream) should be written off as a mere dream, and that casting issues are a better place to focus our attention. You are never going to get more than what you reach for. Why fight for a band-aid when you really need a prosthetic limb??

I think I said even in my initial post that workplace discrimination and discrimination against NDNs in casting issues ARE issues of interest to me. I think Twilight is a particularly lame movie and its NOT a Native movie and it makes it that much harder for me to be very passionate about Native casting issues for this particular film.

I don't think I'm ignorant of Native concerns relating to government and budget. I'm also extremely well-versed in issues relating to Indian mascots and stereotypes of Indians. I was active in lobbying for the passage of California's anti-mascot legislation AB 858, as well as a diversity trainer, and although my area of focus in grad school was language revitalization, I've also researched representations of Native people, the evolution of the "Indian" image in U.S. society, how the assumption of "Indian" identities by non-Indians has gone hand-in-hand with attempts to eradicate and destroy true Native identities and give non-NDNs an increased degree of claim to this land, as well as the role of "Indian" imagery in oppressing/colonizing Native people (similar to what was done to African-Americans). This would be in addition to what I've learned through personal experience as a mixed-blood Cherokee woman. In short, I think I understand very intimately why stereotypes are important.

Re: 2; agree.

RE: your number 3, I'm not saying that change in casting is impossible. At all. Rather, I'm saying its not the most significant type of change to chase. It seems to me that you were closer to deeming something impossible when you said that "funding and distributing NDN-made movies to the mainstream is still a dream." Just becuase we may be further away from that goal is no reason to give up on pursuing it, particularly when its the most important route to pursuing real and meaningful change.

Re: 5; whats the link? I'd like to read what you wrote.

Again, I thank you for the invitation to submit my ideas and writing. Maybe I'll take you up on that ;)

kalisetsi said...

Sidenote- I can't find which posts specifically right now, but one thing I had noticed that I thought was a little off was that you kept including Jessica Biel as a Native actress because of her Choctaw ancestry (? which I know nothing about either way but have no problem talking at face-value, at least for the time being).

I actually don't have a particular problem with you referring to her as a Native actress and including her mixed ancestry (although I'd change my opinion if it turned out she wasn't actually Native ancestry), but what I don't get is WHY you call her that but yet say Johnny Depp is not??! Is Jessica Biel enrolled and/or demonstrably involved in her community? Is it becuase she's a hot chick?? Why this apparent discrepancy? Neither of the two come to my mind when I think Native actors, but I might buy Native-ancestry as very legitimate for both of them. And (if they are) that is their right.

As a mixed girl from a mixedblood Kentucky Cherokee family, I don't really see anything wrong with Johnny Depp claiming his ancestry (assuming he is, and being from KY, tribal enrollment is hardly a dealbreaker). And if he's mixed and he plays white people and spanish people, and transvestites and all other kinds of people, I don't think its an unforgivable sin for him to play a Native too (not my first choice, though, I admit). People like Cher are in a different boat becuase she's Armenian not Cherokee and she just said she was, who knows why.