November 05, 2011

Indians in Hell on Wheels

Hell on Wheels, the new AMC Western series, doesn't neglect Indians. Unfortunately, it seems to stereotype them as merciless savages--unless they convert to Christianity.

**spoiler alert**

The Native plot elements:

HELL ON WHEELS 1.01 'Pilot'

Cullen Bohannon joins the transcontinental construction crew to find the men who murdered his wife.

By Blair Marnell
Joseph Black Moon (Eddie Spears) is baptized by Rev. Nathaniel Cole (Tom Noonan), who decides to build his church among the prostitutes that serve the Hell on Wheels. Ahead in Cheyenne territory, Robert Bell and his wife Lily (Dominique McElligott) chart the map for the railroad company despite the danger from the local tribe and Robert's debilitating illness.And:Back in Cheyenne territory, the tribe attacks the survey team and begins savagely scalping them. Robert and Lily escape into the forest with the survey maps, but his coughing gives them away to a lone warrior. The warrior shoots an arrow through Lily's hand and shoulder before Robert attempts to choke him out. However, Robert is fatally stabbed and Lily is forced to kill the warrior herself with his own arrowhead.

Some reactions to this:

Hell on Wheels:  Can We Forgive and Forget Slavery?

By Brian MoylanIn order to make Bohannon a sympathetic character—a character who is going around killing people who he thinks wronged him—they have to make a big deal out of the fact that he set his slaves free before the Emancipation Proclamation. So killing people is OK, but being a slave owner is not?

The thing that really puts this in a strange perspective is that the show seems to demand a racial sensitivity from the white characters in the story toward the black workers, but it's no big deal if they go around killing the Native Americans who attack them. When Lily (flinty Brit Dominique McElligott) and her husband Robert are attacked by a tribe, the killers are shown as the bloodthirsty villains, and we aren't meant to pass any harsh judgment on Lily, even though she grisly murders one of the "Indians" with his own arrow. Maybe it's because the Indian was a killer and we're operating with no moral compass other than "an eye for an eye." But was it wrong for them to kill these people who are trying to take their land? It seems like it's OK to be racist towards Native Americans but not black people. Does that seem right?
Civil War Vet Stalks Wife’s Killers; David Hare’s Spy Games: TV

By Greg EvansDespite the show’s grit and blood (the head-scalping, arrow- piercing violence is very graphic), “Hell on Wheels” is unwilling to tackle race, gender, religion and capitalism with anything but the most modern sensibility.

Photographed in the same trendy, desaturated look of AMC’s much better “The Walking Dead,” the show costumes itself in revisionism but seems no deeper than “Gunsmoke.”
Indians in Prime Time:  Violent Ambush on AMC’s ‘Hell on Wheels’The AMC website states that Hell on Wheels “underscores the network’s commitment to the Western”—we’ll be watching with great interest to see what sort of western AMC has created, whether it’s one that allows Indians with dramatic depth or simply uses them as cartoonish plot devices.Comment:  I wouldn't count on much from Hell on Wheels. Any show that starts with Indians as "bloodthirsty villains" isn't interested in setting the record straight. I'm guessing the Indians will continue to be cartoonish plot devices.

For more on the subject, see TV Shows Featuring Indians.


Anonymous said...

Well, Mark Twain was ridiculously prejudiced against Indians, to the point that the big bad in Tom Sawyer was named Injun Joe, but Huckleberry Finn is basically about the To Be Lawful Or Good aspect of slavery. (Naturally, in the Cowboy Bebop At His Computer way these things work, people complained about the latter book.) Charles Darwin ranked the Fuegians as "among the lowest rank of humanity" while discrediting polygenesis and being shocked that his native England had slaves not many decades before after seeing a man in Brazil abuse his slave.

But for the most part, people in the 19th century were just racist assholes.

Rob said...

I understand why the 19th-century characters would be racist, but the show itself seems to have a racist attitude. Where's the Native side of the equation? This show was filmed in 2011, so it has no excuse for being one-sided.