January 18, 2016

The Revenant = "white savior" story

The Revenant is not an indigenous story

Grandiose frontier epic never escapes colonial gaze of western genre

By Jesse Wente
The Revenant is not an indigenous story. Like Dances with Wolves before it (among many others) it is an American fable that uses First Nations characters to support its allegorical intent, and one that never escapes the colonial gaze of the western genre.

Like Kevin Costner's more traditional western, The Revenant takes great strides to get period details correct around clothing, language, housing and combat, but does little to elevate the indigenous characters beyond narrative and storytelling devices.
Indigenous People’s Stories Need More Than Just Leonardo DiCaprio’s Speech

By Ryan McMahonMy social media is split between people who love the film for what it was—a story about how lost the English and the French were when they arrived in our territories—and people who hated the film for its tired tropes of violent Indians, and the portrayal of sexual violence against Indigenous women (and, yeah, one scene of sexual violence against an Indigenous woman is enough to mention it here). I've accepted the film for what it is: a look at how ugly and violent the fur trade and the settling of North America was.

Among friends, our "inside the circle" conversations (yes, Indigenous peoples have private conversations y'all are not privy to) about The Revenant have revolved around the white savior complex of the story, the bloodthirsty revenge narrative of the Arikara Chief, and the general musings of the violent times that were. For some, the anger and frustration at the representations of Indigenous people in the film don't allow all of us to see that The Revenant wasn't an Indigenous film. It was a film that happened to have a "B story" that included Native people, but it was not an Indigenous story alone.
'Revenant' Review: It’s Ok, But Still the Same Ol’ White Savior Stuff for Native People

By Gyasi Ross[T]he actual human story pushed Revenant into the same “white savior” garbage pile that has permeated pretty much any mainstream movie that includes Natives as major characters. DiCaprio’s “Glass” character is a dirty, vicious, capitalistic and brutal white man who is trying to get some quick money at the expense of Native people’s resources just like every other white man in the movie. The only difference is that Glass has a half-Native son (some of his best friends are black) and so that, evidently, somehow makes him different than the rest of the dirty, vicious, brutal and capitalistic white men. Glass instructs his half-Native son to be silent and to not upset white men, for survival, as white men hold the key to Native people’s survival and can exterminate them at any time. “Be invisible.”

When one of those other dirty, vicious, capitalistic brutal white men kills Glass’s son, DiCaprio goes full-on Native; somehow surviving the worst tragedies, misfortunes and pains that the world can throw at him (‘cause that’s what we do). He’s bent on revenge—the only way that he can find redemption is through avenging his Native son. And that’s kinda the way Hollywood historically uses Native people and black bodies: as lesson providers and tragic figures. We usually don’t live long enough to see the glory of the white man’s redemption, but instead have to be killed so that the white protagonist can find his or her humanity.
Chris Hemsworth and Leonardo DiCaprio Suffer for Oscars in Their New Movies

Both stars try to prove their seriousness as actors in old-timey survival tales In the Heart of the Sea and The Revenant, but there is a winner.

By Alison WillmoreThe Revenant is so prettily constructed that it’s painful to admit how ridiculous it actually is, and how empty it feels to watch a gruff, pseudo-mystical Western consisting of two actors method-style grunting their way toward an inevitable showdown in the snow. Like In the Heart of the Sea, The Revenant is set in a realm that’s entirely female-free, save for Glass’s ghost wife and an Arikara woman who’s kidnapped and raped. Movies don’t have to have a gender balance to be good, but The Revenant’s monotonous manliness is part of its weakness—it isn’t about anything other than the savage, violent world it’s so convinced has innate weight to it. Its revenge plot brings no satisfaction and its observations about the indifference of nature are prosaic. It’s a movie about survival in which survival seems as meaningless as everything else in its universe.

Though The Revenant is a more ambitious film than In the Heart of the Sea, in the end, the two survival dramas do the same thing: They treat struggle as synonymous with substance, even though one definitely doesn’t guarantee the other.
Excellent points, especially in the final review. Even if The Revenant is historically accurate, its portrayals sound disturbing.

Indeed, they sound like a 19th-century version of "poverty porn." See how bad the violence against Indians was? See? See? See?

We could call it massacre porn, genocide porn, or something like that. I'm not sure it serves a useful purpose either artistically or historically.

Someone defended the movie as "based on a true story," to which I said:

If you're going to fictionalize Glass's story--as they did--you could fictionalize it with a female, black, or Native protagonist. Heck, you could set it in Africa with a lion or Asia with a tiger instead of a bear.

It's a choice to make a movie featuring a white male protagonist such as Hemsworth or DiCaprio. Not an unalterable law of nature.

For more on Leonardo DiCaprio, see Is The Revenant a Game-Changer? and DiCaprio's Speech Isn't Enough.

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