February 11, 2009

Natives on non-Native casting

I asked some correspondents what they thought about non-Natives being cast as Natives in movies and TV shows. Here are their responses:Hollywood is simply returning to a very old trend of casting non-Indians as Indians. Anybody remember Katherine Ross as Willie Boy's Paiute princess bride? Or Chuck Connors as Cochise, blue eyes and all? One thing is certain, until we have Natives working as producers, writers and directors within the major studios, we'll still have to contend with non-Indians being cast as Indians.


[Debra Utacia Krol is the owner of Jolon Indian Publishing, a small publishing firm in Arizona, and a well-known Salinan Indian journalist and writer.]



Natives need to be cast for Native parts. It's that simple. With a little effort on Hollywood's part it can be done. There are plenty of talented Native actors out there to choose from. Unfortunately, Hollywood always has a way of jacking something up that pertains to the historically correctness or cultural aspects of Natives. The same goes for a lot of the PBS crap that comes out. Much of it censored or just simply left out on purpose.

Personally, I don't think this will change in my lifetime. I am an independent Navajo film maker and I refuse to compromise anything I do to appeal to a wider audience. For me it's about making movies, not making money. Yes, it would be nice to make millions of dollars making my movies, but realistically, I know that will never happen. That's why I work a full time job and make movies on the side. Something has to pay the bills.

I was told by ABC/Disney at the IAIA Summer Film Workshop in Santa Fe, NM, that I will never make it in the business with my attitude towards mainstream media. Personally, I don't want to be in their business. They can keep their horse shit and continue to spoon feed it to the general public for all I care.

Shonie De La Rosa
Sheephead Films


I can identify with both sides of this issue, a prime example of the economics of discrimination in the movie business. On the one hand, I think it's important for the Native community to take exception and speak up whenever a non-Native is cast in a Native role, particularly for a high profile project like the Twilight series and the Lone Ranger. On the other hand, if I'm a producer trying to get a studio or an investor to put up a substantial amount of money for a film, I know I'll have a better chance of securing funding if I cast a big name like Johnny Depp. Studios and investors are obviously more interested in turning a profit than cultural sensitivity, and unfortunately there are currently no Native actors in the marketplace whose names are synonymous with box office potential.

So, how are Native actors ever going to reach the level of even being considered for big time movie roles (Native or non-Native) if they aren't presented with any opportunities? At the risk of lapsing into cliche, I believe the answer lies within ourselves ... in the sense that American Indian advocates and artists need to be more pro-active in creating awareness and opportunities. Most of the networks, studios and guilds have diversity departments, which do tend to listen to the feedback they get. Maybe SAG should implement a "Rooney rule" where all signatories must give first consideration to Native American actors for all American Indian roles, big or small. But wait, there are so few roles calling for American Indians to begin with that the effect of such a mandate would probably be minimal at best. As such, Native actors will likely need to continue to rely on community watchdog groups to keep the producers of projects like "Twilight" on their toes.

Additionally, if Native actors can't rely on the studios for opportunities, they'll have to depend more and more on Native independent filmmakers and entrepreneurs to take the responsibility creatively and financially not only in making movies with Native roles but also in crafting movies that mainstream audiences might actually want to see. Until films by and about American Indians can prove that they can lure ticket buyers to movie theaters, it's likely that the talent and star potential of Native actors will continue to go unnoticed by Hollywood.

James Lujan
Director of InterTribal Entertainment
for the Southern California Indian Center
Comment:  Shonie De La Rosa directed Mile Post 398 and James Lujan oversees the Creative Spirit competition, of course.

Re "I know I'll have a better chance of securing funding if I cast a big name like Johnny Depp": You may have a better chance of securing funding, but you won't have a better chance of earning profits. I explained why in Fallacy of the Big-Name Actor.

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

Below:  "They cast me as an Indian because I'm a big-name star...not!"


modest-goddess said...

I could understand the whole big name thing but Twilight was made with no name actors, if they are famous now it is only because of Twilight.

Anonymous said...

YEA! YOU TELL THEM Shonie De La Rosa I like what you said!
"I don't want to be in their business. They can keep their horse shit and continue to spoon feed it to the general public for all I care"

Anonymous said...

Well--Shonie, you really should be making bigger movies than what you're making. You're talented and smart, and you should have a bigger budget and more cinematic toys to play with.

It's really a b)(l-breaker to get into the Hollywood mainstream but we all need to start worming our way into the club. Then, when we have Indians running studios who can nurture the onscreen talent, we may indeed start seeing more NDNS on the big screen.

Anonymous said...

In the case of Twilight they cast Taylor Launtner not because he was a big name star but because he was next big tween star (think Jonas brothers and miley Cyrus) and that is Specifically WHY he was cast. The throngs of screaming "fan girls" who think is "hawt OMG." ... Cultural senstivity never entered into it. It's all about money.

Anonymous said...

Here's an idea: How about the Tribes get behind some films financially?

Learn the indy film business and PRODUCE!

That's what it will take to give Native performers roles.

Hollywood could care less about a demographic that only contains 4.5 million people. That's a "niche" market to them.

The studios are tied to their bottom line. They look at the gross returns, and which actors/directors were in the films...

Because that's what the investors look at. Period.

If an actor has a following or a recognizable name in mainstream media...the marketing has already been done for the film. No heavy lifting, no having to sell a new face.

As an award winning, experienced, independent film producer/director who has been stone-walled with a "Native" project for financing, I can tell you even if a Native American became the head of Warner Brothers, it's the financiers backing the film that have the final word.

The tribes I have contacted don't want the risk of the film game (understandably) but in this game it's pay to play.

Rob said...

For my responses to Jet, see No Bottom Line for Native Movies? and Tribes Should Make Movies. For my response to Anonymous #3, see Lautner's "Tween" Following.

jay said...

I'll chime in with my two cents.

I think you really do need to have some sort of big name actor attached to your project. Look at any indie that comes out at Sundance and even as low budget as the project may be, it has a known actor attached, and this brings us to...

You have to have a project that has universal appeal. This means, unfortunately that you have to compromise. I like Shonie's point of view but the fact of the matter is we are dealing with films and not literature or other art forms where you have that "leeway" to create. Films to be successful need to have some sort of compromise, whether it be actor, story or what have you. This is the nature of the business of movies.

Sophie Annan Jensen said...

what a timely topic, with Public Enemies now in the theaters, starring a French actress as John Dillinger's half-native girlfriend!
My brief review is at

it's a shame star Johnny Depp, who is part Cherokee, didn't use his clout to get a native actress cast.

Rob said...

Using superstars isn't the way to make box-office hits, Jay. As I discussed in Fallacy of the Big-Name Actor.

Right you are, Sophie. I discussed Dillinger's girlfriend in (Mis)casting in Public Enemies.

Sophie Annan Jensen said...

thanks, Rob!
I love Shonie De La Rosa's comment-- that's brave and realistic.
Native film makers might want to take a look at the career of Darnell Martin, an African-American woman who has done some remarkable "small" films based in reality.
She has also learned the trade and paid her dues with a lot of less remarkable work. :-)