August 15, 2009

Stereotypical Black Elk "film-opera"

The medicine man’s crazy dream

Tom Hall’s film-opera channels a Lakota leader’s visions—with war paint, Indian boogie and a bartender in a loincloth

By Otis R. Taylor Jr.It’s his third day of filming sequences for “Plowboys and Indians: Visions of Black Elk,” Hall’s ambitious opera that debuts Friday at the Columbia Museum of Art.

“Plowboys and Indians” is live art, a confluence of music, dance, film, painting and food. A story—an unsettling history—will be told.

The production—if by opera Hall means stop-motion filmmaking meets back-porch picking and chanting meets interpretive painting meets “Top Chef” cooking—is as much about a Native American medicine man’s visions as it is about Hall’s creative process: manic, inspiring and, at times, hard to believe or comprehend.

Thomas, who is the opera’s narrator, prepares for the scene, one that ends with him planting his walking stick as he raises his tortured head to the sun.

He’s barefoot. And wearing a loincloth.

How the heck did he get here?

Thomas, a bartender at Hunter-Gatherer, saw Hall reading a book, “Black Elk Speaks,” the history of a medicine man, at the bar.

“Next thing is I’m wearing red paint and wearing a loincloth and riding a horse bareback,” he says.
And:But wait—Indian music? The music the band plays has a rhythmic, boogie feel.

“It’s as close to Indian music as we can make it,” Hall says.

Each song begins with the thump, thump, thump of a lone drum. The song lyrics are taken verbatim from chants and passages in “Black Elk Speaks.”

“Part of what is important in that we’re not Indians is for us to not try too hard to be Indians,” Hall says.

“I’m not an Indian, but I’m also not going to wait around for somebody else to do it because it needs to be done.”
Comment:  When you think of the esteemed spiritual leader Black Elk, do you think of a barefoot, half-naked guy in a loincloth and warpaint? Me neither.

Add to that the drumming and chanting and this "opera" sounds like pure stereotyping.

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

Below:  "Tom Hall laughs with friend Henry Thomas while preparing to film a scene on his property for his upcoming rock opera." (Gerry Melendez)


Anonymous said...

Wow you realize you can't just pull photos and huge blocks of copy out of a copyrighted publication and put it on your site?

Anonymous said...

I bet the revered and esteemed Black Elk is rolling over in his grave.

These white people are so tiresome. I was going to write a long diatribe about how wrong this is and point out this Tom Hall person's white privilge, blah blah, but it's not up to me to educate his ignorant white ass. Nor do I think it would make any difference.

So there.


Anonymous said...

Please feel free to come and be a part. Help inform the rock opera.
We would love to have you.

Anonymous said...

Having read both Black Elk speaks and having read Tom's "opera", I must say that this has been approached with reverence and with the utmost respect for Black Elk and his life. I can also see how one might take offense given the tone of the newspaper article but the tone of the performance is intended to be quite different. It is meant to educate and expose people to the sacred life of this great man. My hope is that all will approach it with an open mind rather than with a knee-jerk reaction filled with hatred and disdain. I firmly believe Black Elk would have expected no less.

Anonymous said...

The intention is to donate a portion of the proceeds of the opera to St. Joseph's Indian school in South Dakota which serves over 200 Lakota (Sioux) children each year. In addition to providing a residential education program for the children, St. Joseph's provides services to Lakota people on South Dakota reservations including a women's shelter and counseling services.

I just don't get the hatred.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for making my point you silly little white man. You won't understand and you never will. I knew I was wasting my breath and time. As for the knee jerk reaction, I should be asking you the same question, why the knee jerk reaction when someone disagrees? I don't hate you, I don't hate period, but that is the typical white response. So please, just go back to your beer swilling soiree.


Rob said...

Re "Wow you realize you can't just pull photos and huge blocks of copy out of a copyrighted publication and put it on your site?" Yes, I'm well aware of the fair-use provision of the copyright law. It exists for exactly this reason: to permit not-for-profit, educational commentary and criticism. I've used the fair-use provision as it was intended: to expose and expostulate on Native stereotypes in the media, including this article.

Rob said...

I have no idea what the "tone" of the finished film-opera is. I'm reacting mainly to the stereotypes evident in the article. In particular, to the idea of dressing up someone as an "Indian" in a loincloth and red skin paint. It's an offensive idea in any Native-themed production, much less one about a revered leader such as Black Elk.

If you consider it "hatred" to point out stupid stereotypes, I guess that's your prerogative. But your claim is wrong since there's no hatred involved. The stereotypes are false and I've merely noted their falsity. I feel no more "hatred" about this than I do when a child mistakenly claims 1+1=3.

Luckily, you can see and judge the article and photo yourself. That's because I've reposted them legally, per the fair-use provision of the copyright law, for that purpose. Capeesh?

Anonymous said...

Hello rob and anonymous,
this is another comment maker. I think despite the stereotypes (definitely evident in the media portrayal and aspects of our presentation) the opera went very well. We will continue to explore exciting cultural commentaries and stories worth interpreting. thanks for the comments. We have learned much from the dialog and wish to continue learning.
your friend,