February 09, 2016

White Woman Walks Ahead

White woman walks ahead: Jessica Chastain starring in a film about Sitting Bull is everything that’s wrong with prestige films

"Woman Walks Ahead" is the latest installation in Hollywood's pathological obsession with white-savior films

By Paula Young Lee
According to the report, Chastain will portray Caroline Weldon, a “19th-century Brooklyn artist and activist who moved to the Standing Rock Reservation in Dakota Territory to help Sioux chieftain Sitting Bull fight to keep the land for his people.”

The basic problem is that “Woman Walks Ahead” is already being conceived and presented as a white-savior film, precisely because the narrative is being framed through Weldon’s white feminist, righteous position of ally-ship with a dispossessed and marginalized people. The tragedy of history becomes a narrative shield that continues to legitimize the hideous fate of Lakota Sioux precisely because the story is mined for its tragedy … and that’s it. Must stories about Natives always take place in some mythologized past stocked with pintos and muskets? Is it so difficult to grasp that a fairy tale wrapped in museologically accurate buffalo robes is still a fairy tale? Frankly, the setup would be a lot more interesting if the film unfolded from the perspective of a young Lakota girl born and raised in the Standing Rock reservation, with a story line exploring her bafflement and anger at this random white lady who shows up to play interlocutor and scribe, while being utterly clueless about how to make poultices out of wild plants or anything that has to do with functioning as a whole person.

What would it take to get the film written in this way? A female team of Sioux screenwriters, to start. But the bigger obstacle is Hollywood’s near pathological obsession with white-savior narratives, which become synonymous with the “prestige” film. “In the last quarter-century,” David Sirota wrote in 2013 for Salon, “10 White Savior films have received major Hollywood award nominations, with fully half of those coming in just the last five years.” No surprise, then, that since 2010, only two actors of color have garnered Oscars for acting, both times in “supporting” roles that position them as subservient to white authority: Octavia Spencer in 2012, playing a maid in “The Help,” and Lupita Nyong’o in 2013, as a slave in “12 Years a Slave.” In other words, as Kara Brown writes for Jezebel, “Hollywood has a problem with only paying attention to non-white people when they’re playing a stereotype.”

Small victories do not fundamentally alter the structural racism of the industry. “The reality is that if no scripts or films are made that include roles for Native people, roles that call for extraordinary acting chops,” wrote Sonny Skyhawk, “then we are excluded from the opportunity to participate in the yearly considerations for Golden Globe Awards, SAG Awards, and Oscars.” It’s not a chicken-and-egg problem so much as an exclusionary system pretending to reward merit. As long as Oscar-bait films privilege white-savior narratives, actors of color will find it difficult if not impossible to get nominated for awards—especially best actor or actress—inside a system designed to prevent this.
Comment:  Also known as Stands With a Fist: The True Story. Juliette Lewis wanted the role because she looks good in a headdress.


I discussed this project with a few Facebook friends:[Sitting Bull] had an Irish confidant?Her name was Caroline Weldon and she was his "white squaw." Her story was more important than Sitting Bull's and needs to be told.WTFChastain is young and pretty, so it makes sense to make a Native movie starring her.[Godzilla facepalm]They were going to call it Sitting Bull Walks Behind. But they decided to focus on the star.I remember Steve Judd and I were meeting with people who wanted to do this story. Obviously, it never happened. Acctually I think the producers ripped off some Indians. But I wanted to do the story (SPOILERS) because I thought it was the anti-white saviour story. I thought the woman had savior syndrome and wanted to be the great white hope for the Lakota and ended up losing her son, and may have been one of the reasons for instigating Sitting Bull's death and the massacre of Wounded Knee. After that, she left the rez and never dealt with Indians again. There was also inference that she messed around with Sitting Bull. So, it would be a tragedy. I wonder if this movie would be more hopeful.I don't think they can make the history surrounding Sitting Bull and Wounded Knee more hopeful. They can make Weldon's life more hopeful as a fighter for justice.

I hope you pitched it as the dramatic story of a white woman who refused to give up. Because that was the way to get this movie made!

Savior or anti-savior?

I'm being somewhat sarcastic, since I don't know the actual story. It could well be an anti-white-savior tragedy. It could feature as-yet-unnamed Native actors in career-making roles. It could champion a Native writer and a Native director--oh, wait, those ships have already sailed.

I guess Weldon could give up and go home after Sitting Bull dies. But somehow I imagine her pounding doors or tables, refusing to give up, demanding justice. Only after the Great White Father shuts her out will she admit defeat. But not really, because she'll be defiant to the end in her heart!

Caroline WeldonCaroline Weldon was a 19th-century artist and activist with the National Indian Defense Association. Weldon became confidante and private secretary to Sitting Bull during the time when Plains Indians had adopted the Ghost Dance movement.I don't see anything more dramatic than writing letters in her bio. Maybe the movie will surprise us and not have a dramatic scene of her storming the halls of Congress or the Indian agent's office and demanding justice.

No doubt they'll play up the relationship as a torrid love affair. Something like this:

The movie's previous title was Savage Desire aka Sitting Bull Walks Behind aka Sitting Bull's White Squaw. Not Me Sexy. Because that would be silly.

Why stop with Chastain?

But maybe I'm giving them too much credit. What about a rugged white star to play Sitting Bull? You know, the way Joseph Fiennes is playing Michael Jackson.

Perhaps someone like Jeff Bridges or Kurt Russell. You know, someone who has an affinity for old Westerns. And can put a few butts in the seats.

White people want to see white stars! It's a law!The lady is a little known historical figure and very little information about her, so you have a lot of freedom with how to depict her. but, as you said, there's no mention of the rest of the cast. There are also very few well-known (by western standards) American Indian actors/actresses. so a publication of Hollywood Reporter will not care, they just care about the star of the moment, not some little known actor who may have been in a few movies and TV shows. I doubt they would even throw Gil Birmingham or Wes Studi a shout out even though they've been in in award winning and some of the most successful films.Heaven forbid we should lower Jessica Chastain (39 roles according to IMDB) to the level of a Gil Birmingham (51 roles) or Wes Studi (92 roles). I mean, she starred in Zero Dark Thirty, which was way bigger than Twilight or Avatar.

Obviously, the lack of mentions is my point. Even in a movie that's ostensibly about Natives, the announcement is all about the white people doing the project.

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

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