February 19, 2010

Reel Injun reviewed

Reel Injun:  Witty doc shoots barbed arrows at Hollywood stereotypes

By Linda BarnardPart road trip and part Hollywood history lesson, Canadian filmmaker Neil Diamond's Reel Injun makes the moviemaking morons the punchline in Reel Injun.

If the sight of Boris Karloff playing Tinseltown's version of the "noble savage" in body makeup and a lousy wig doesn't draw laughs, how about Burt Reynolds or William Shatner pulling the same shtick?

Hollywood taught generations of moviegoers to root for cowboys and revile Indians, and they bought the mythology with their tickets. Even Diamond, a Cree, said he wanted to be the cowboy. After all, they were cooler.

The documentary uses dozens of clips from the silent era onwards--natives always portrayed as ruthless killers in feathered headdresses and war paint--to provide a lengthy celluloid history. Watch for an amusing scene where native actors in A Distant Trumpet (1964) speak their minds--as recently added translation shows--rather than sticking to the white-man-good script.
Barnard's conclusion:The doc tends to become repetitive and has a less-than-polished look. But with Diamond's use of dry humour, Reel Injun manages to entertain as it teaches.

Two stars (out of four)
Movie review:  Aboriginal stereotyping by Hollywood seen through a Native lens

By Katherine MonkJust about every piece of information and point of view in this movie is backed up with examples and credible talking heads, but the movie feels surprisingly staid and conventional given the subject matter.

Diamond doesn’t really take any formal risks with his material, and straps everything into the expected format—which comes close to betraying the film’s internal premise of difference from the very start.

It’s not an insurmountable problem, but it doesn’t serve the larger purpose of the film itself which is to emancipate the aboriginal image from the shackles of stereotype and expectation.

A redeeming essay with plenty of material worth ruminating, Reel Injun makes the points it needed to and articulates an often silenced perspective—much like its thematic and structural cousin, The Celluloid Closet, which looked at the representations of gay people.

This was a movie that needed to be made. Credit to Diamond for putting it together with as much clarity, archival footage and expert information as he does, but there’s a palpable lack of revelation in this frequently funny, but finally downbeat exploration of culture.

Diamond can’t be faulted for stumbling into the same old artifice dressed up as truth, but by the same token, the lack of a fresh kill in the conventions department drains the film of urgency—and sanguine satisfaction.

Rating: Three stars out of five
Reel Injun:  Maybe let's try dancing without the wolves

Cree director Neil Diamond's real look at reel Indians

Comment:  Hmm. These articles combine enticing reviews with mediocre ratings. That suggests the material transcends the filmmakers' limitations. The whole is less than the sum of the parts.

A few points on Reel Injun's claims:

  • That most celluloid "Injuns" had no connection with real Indians is true but obvious.

  • That only one old Hollywood actor was a real Indian is false. I believe a dozen or more Natives worked in Hollywood in the first half of the 20th century. They aren't well known, but they were there.

  • That Indians wore Plains headdresses and headbands to keep their wigs in place? Maybe, but the Plains stereotypes started taking root in the early 19th century. If the actors hadn't needed the headgear, they would've worn it anyway.

  • That the savage warrior gradually transformed into a noble, wise, mystical warrior is also true but obvious.

  • For more on the subject, see Reel Injun Interview and Reel Injun Trailer.

    Below:  "Director Neil Diamond set out find why the Indians he saw in the movies were so different from himself and those he grew up with on James Bay." (Ren√© Johnston/Toronto Star)

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