March 06, 2014

Playing Indian in The Red Road

The Red Road, a six-episode mini-series on the Sundance Channel, has received a lot of coverage in the media. I'm not sure why. Is it because Jason Momoa is a budding superstar? Because of the dark story material? Because Out of the Furnace, a movie about the same people, is mired in controversy?

A key issue here is who gets to play Indians. Momoa claims to have a little Indian blood, but his Native heritage is mostly Hawaiian. Actress Tamara Tunie also claims to have Indian blood, although DNA often disproves African Americans who say this. The same applies to Momoa's wife Lisa Bonet.

A few articles address these representational issues, which makes them more interesting than the usual plot summaries or reviews. Check them out:

‘The Red Road’s Creators on Representing Native Americans and an Environmental Mystery

By Alyssa RosenbergThe Red Road is the product of two white creators, Prisoners screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski and longtime Friday Night Lights and Parenthood executive producer Bridget Carpenter. I spoke with both of them in January about creating authentic Native American characters, breaking the mold on crime stories, and how to handle mental illness on television. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Native Americans have almost no representation on American television at all. I think Longmire and Ken Hotate on Parks and Recreation, it’s like those are the only two other representations. And so, I was curious, you’re entering a space about people who are very underrepresented and you’re coming in with a crime story. And obviously there are a lot of huge and legitimate issues between Native communities and the police, you’re also coming in with characters of color who are criminals. I was wondering if you could just talk me through the decision to tell a crime story and some of those challenges of representing underrepresented people.

Guzikowski: I think also all of the characters in the show do good things and they do bad things. And I think when we were talking about how these characters are gonna be portrayed, I think it was the same thing, you know, there’s good people and there’s bad people and we’re not gonna say that we’re gonna have X amount of people represented this way and, you know what I mean, just try and evaluate each character individually and just go with that as our guiding principle.

Carpenter: I would say what excited me about the script when I read it and super excited me to get the job and get in and work on it is that nobody is just one thing…To me, and I know to Aaron, we hope for life, our stock and trade, is that we wanna write there dimensional people, complicated people, we are not interested in white-washing anybody. But that question is totally valid but by the same token we weren’t ever like “is he nice enough here?” you know, that just wasn’t the way… I would say that the way that I have always gone about making television, the way that we talk in the writer’s room is we talk a story and we talk about the people and then the question that I repeat ask until everybody hates me is “what would really happen?” Who is that person, what would really happen. And so race and ethnicity of course is a part of it but it doesn’t define it.

I was just curious because I think pop culture in this moment is in this very difficult spiral where you don’t want to provide a sole representation of somebody and have it be negative but you don’t want to deny people their humanity but forcing them to be saints.

Carpenter: That’s very well said! And, in fact, to then side step it by saying “I’m not gonna deal with it at all” is, to me, in and of itself, an aversive racism…And I think with the way that we’re interested in dealing is by telling a story and so we are confident enough to have the courage of our convictions and to go “here’s our story, warts and all.” And then that’s the other place where we worked in concert, we did have a Ramapough consultant whose name is Autumn Winscott who we wanted to have that conversation creatively. And she would read our scripts and bring our attention to things that seemed not to read true or to be off the mark and we would then have a creative conversation and, if we agreed, we would address them and adjust. So, in that sense, we feel we kind of worked very transparently and we feel real fundamental respect for the area and the people that inspired the seed of the story…There was a lot of material that we both also read that Aaron in fact brought to me in coverage of that area… I think Redford’s son did the documentary called “Man vs. Ford” so there was coverage on the toxic waste….So we read a lot of that. That was among many of the articles that informed the architecture of our the shaping of the world.
And:I was also curious about casting the show because one of the things that’s fascinating about the Ramapough is that they are this sort of hybrid ethnicity and it was really interesting to see Tamara and Jason go talk on the panel today about how this is sort of a rare chance for them to really have a reflection of their ethnicities in a part so I thought casting that must’ve been very interesting.

Guzikowski: Well, I mean, it was charged, it was charged. And early on I think we thought it was going to be more difficult than it was to find the people with a kind of happy mixed background, I mean, how many actors are going to fit into this category but actually there were quite a lot and they were quite good, it was easy.

Carpenter: The good news is that for us art won the day, like the best people won the roles and then we went “Oh Tamara has Indian, is a Blackfoot in her background, oh my god!” it was like “and Jason has Shawnee in his background, oh my g-” you know, that kind of kept happening that it was like a great collision of the best person getting the role which is the dream thing. You don’t, you didn’t want to do tokenism. At the same time, it’s essential that we have actual Native Americans involved in as much as we can, it’s part of it. So, we looked for it and the best people won the job in every respect. That was true of our costume designer is part Native American, Kiowa [Gordon] is part Native American. Our guest stars, the guy who plays Mike, Zahn McClarnon is Native American. Gary Farmer, the magical Gary Farmer.
Jason Momoa on his “Red Road” character: “He’s just a bad seed”

The actor discusses Native American representation on TV, "Game of Thrones" and playing an unlikable character

By Neil Drumming
What appealed to you about the part of Phillip Kopus in “Red Road”?

I played a Mojave character in “Road to Paloma.” I did the language. We did all the traditional things that represent the tribe. I liked the idea that this was a contemporary piece about a Native who is not recognized by his own tribe. He was left by his mother. He was raised by a white drug lord (Tom Sizemore). He’s just a bad seed. I like that he didn’t grow up in a home. He’s a bit of a lone wolf and an outcast and his own people don’t even like him. I really liked that. Even though he steered away from his roots, he’ll eventually probably come back to it and it will find him and accept him as a part of the community. So, that was interesting to me. What was also interesting is that life sucker punches people and you kind of go down a path that isn’t necessarily right and you’re not necessarily bad. Even though you’re not sure if he’s a good guy or bad guy, there are so many gray areas to it and that appealed to me.

African-American actors are often concerned about the type of roles they choose, the type of people they portray, because representation is so rare. Since there are so few representations of Native Americans on television, is that something you had to think about?

It definitely was. Even though it’s a fictional tribe that we’re representing, [they] were inspired by the Ramapough Indians who do not have federal recognition. I think [show creator] Aaron Guzikowski was very inspired by that. And I was very concerned. I went up there to talk to some of the people and I wanted them to know they’re not going to like me. We do represent that tribe. There are people that are good. My wife plays a lawyer that’s representing the tribe. We have many beautiful, smart members, but with every race there’s something bad. I like the idea that they’re not going to like [my character], but no one fucking likes me, my mother doesn’t even like me. There’s a cop [played by Martin Henderson]. What I love is that the show makes the audience question whether or not a cop would cover up a murder to protect his family.

How do you research a fictional tribe?

I wanted to go to [where the actual Ramapough live, 25 miles outside of New York] because my character had been gone for 12 years. I wanted to find that home in my mind and have those images. When Phillip was locked up for six years, he always had this place that he could return to. There’s this peace or whatever that gives him calm. The tribe is based in the forest, and I wanted to have something to call upon. I also wanted to go and talk to some of the tribe members and say, “This is what I’m going to be doing” and let them know that my character is an evil guy. He’s not a good man, so I wanted to make that clear.
Exclusive Interview with THE RED ROAD’s Tamara Tunie

The actress talks her role in the Sundance series, plus being a Broadway producer

By Abbie Bernstein
AX: Kopus starts out rejecting his Native American heritage; he has a white father, played by Tom Sizemore. Is Marie supposed to be fully of the tribe, or does she have a varied ethnic background?

TUNIE: Well, the tribe itself has varied ethnic background. That is the ancestry of this particular Native American nation. They are mixed ancestry. I think because the makeup of this tribe–they are descendants of Lenape Indians, African-Americans/former African slaves and Dutch. Their names are Vanderveen and Mann. So that defines this particular Native American tribe. And they have lived in this community for over a century, so I don’t think somebody from outside could go, “Well, I have ten percent Native American blood, so I’m a Native American and part of this tribe.”
And more:

Jason Momoa on 'Red Road' Character: 'You Don't Know Who He Is Yet'

Comment:  Kiowa Gordon, Gary Farmer, and Zahn McClarnon are listed 5th, 8th, and 13th among the cast members on IMDB. It's unfortunate that a series about a tribe doesn't have more American Indian actors in more prominent roles. But I give the creators credit for researching the Ramapough and using some Native actors. They're probably done more than average in creating an authentic Native series.

The results

The Red Road has received mixed reviews. I think the general impression was, "Nice try, but there's too much going on and the writing isn't good enough."

Most critics didn't assess the Native aspects. I think someone mentioned a Native character having "visions" of past events. But that could happen to anyone, so it's not particularly stereotypical.

I haven't seen The Red Road, so I can't weigh in. But Sonny Skyhawk had some choice comments about it on Facebook:This series is the furthest thing from what the title implies, to us Native people who know what it really means. It is hard to describe even in the English language, but I will try. Look up the dictionary words for CONVOLUTED, BOGUS, and MISDIRECTED, and then maybe you get the picture. This is nothing less than an ignorant writers' view of what happens when you throw the elements of drama, bogus Native culture, and BS into a blender, and select high speed, take out the blended concoction, and try to convince people to swallow it, and like it. A more ripe example of Hollywood bs, not since T & TLR, has yet to come down the proverbial pike, as they say.T & TLR = Tonto and the Lone Ranger.

I'm not sure what Skyhawk objects to. But I haven't seen anyone criticize The Red Road for portraying Indians as sinners as well as saints.

It's like I've said about the Scalped comic book, and to a lesser degree about the Blackstone TV series. No one objects if you portray a realistic range of Native characters. With most of them being positive or neutral, as in real life.

We object when a movie, TV show, or comic book is unrealistically negative. When it makes life on the rez look much more lawless, corrupt, and depraved than it really is. Because that's a modern-day version of the classic "savage Indian" stereotype. These fictional Indians may not scalp people, torture them, or burn them at the stake, but they're still doing evil things beyond the pale of decency.

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