June 12, 2009

Johnny Whitefeather in Imagine That

The new Eddie Murphy "comedy" features a phony Indian character as the antagonist. As usual, he's stereotypical to the max.

'Imagine That' **½When Olivia puts the Goo-Gaa over her head, she's transported to a mystical world (which we never see) with dragons and princesses, who whisper stock tips to her, which she tells Evan.

The fact that every tip from Olivia's imaginary friends proves true makes Evan a sensation at the workplace, much to the chagrin of his office rival Johnny Whitefeather (Thomas Haden Church), a Native American who aggressively brings chants and tribe-speak into company meetings.
Thomas Haden Church aims for family audience in “Imagine That”With Olivia and his pretend princess pals guiding him, Evan hopes to use their keen financial wizardry to stave off his arch-nemesis Johnny Whitefeather (Church), who accents his Western suits with feathers, punctuates his pitches with references to animal spirits and encourages his clients to caw like birds in meetings.

“The guy, he’s a fraud. … He’s so corny and so cheesy,” Church said. “It’s just a sales tool for him.”

Striking the right tone for the character required some nimble line-walking. But Church said he has worked with American Indians actors before and talked with various tribal leaders while working on the film. in Denver. The studio even read American Indian actors for the part, though the characters Native roots ultimately prove rather shallow.

“I think if you were trying to accurately represent tribal tradition and the values that are important to them and you did it in a fraudulent, comedic, absurd way, I think they would probably take issue. But we don’t do that,” he said.

“As soon as I walk onscreen, the guy’s absurd, with the mullet, his jewelry and his presentation is just so overt. … I think it’s obvious what’s going on.
Comment:  Yes, it's obvious what's going on. Church is participating in the umpteenth case of stupidly stereotyping Indians.

From the reviews, I don't get a sense that Church's character is immediately exposed and denounced as a fraud. Rather, it seems his office takes him seriously for most if not all of Imagine That. So the movie isn't mocking him, it's letting him mock Indians.

In the real world, people would challenge or reject someone who looked and acted like a wannabe. But in Imagine That, people are so ignorant that they follow the obvious phony. The problem isn't so much that Whitefeather is a fraud, it's that no one realizes he's a fraud.

Note that the producers thought about casting a real Native actor before going with Church. We don't know if they rewrote the role for Church, but this is suggestive. It suggests they conceived the character as a real Indian with comical beliefs. At least initially, they planned to satirize and mock the beliefs, not the character expressing them.

Let's sum it up. Give Imagine That a point for using an Indian character in a modern office setting. Subtract a point for casting the non-Native Church in a Native role. Subtract another point for the "Indian's" stereotypical New Age chants and tribe-speak. Net result: Negative one point. Imagine that.

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


Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting this. I was thinking about taking my 8 year old niece to see this today but now I think we'll go see something else. We live in an urban area and I know people in the audience, who probably have not met a real native, will take the character at face value. I don't need that headache today. *l*

Anonymous said...

Nah at the end of the movie the boss exposed him saying he's only 1/32th Native.