Every year, Indigenous actors and cultures are underrepresented or mishandled in films and television shows. However, last year may have marked a turning point with some of these problems highlighted by the #OscarsSoWhite and #HollywoodSoWhite controversies amidst great performances by Native actors.
With this increasing awareness and demand for respect for Native culture, Indigenous actors made strides internationally last year in important ways.
One major example was the DC Comics supervillain Slipknot -- originally a non-native character -- that was racebent when Indian country favorite Adam Beach was cast in the big budget film Suicide Squad.
With the influx of star-making performances by Indigenous actors and actresses in 2016, Indian country will continue to see to increasing opportunities for them in film and television, and most hopefully in more leading roles
Here are nine notable standout performances from 2016:
Gil Birmingham (Comanche)
US Independent Feature Film, ‘Come Hell or Highwater’
Gil Birmingham, Comanche, is one of Indian country’s leading actors, with film credits in Twilight, Crooked Arrows, Shouting Secrets and The Lone Ranger and TV credits in House of Cards, Banshee and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.
In 2016, he was one of the four leads in the hit film, Hell or High Water. Most notable was Birmingham’s work alongside Jeff Bridges, who won a Best Actor Oscar for Crazy Heart and is often dubbed “The Dude” for his iconic comedic role in The Big Lebowski.
Hell or High Water received high praise in the media and an impressive rating on Rotten Tomatoes at 98%. Birmingham told ICMN that working with ‘The Dude’ was a highlight of his career.
Lily Gladstone (Blackfeet and Nez Perce)
US Independent Feature Film, ‘Certain Women’
Certain Women was adapted from Maile Meloy’s Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It’, about the lives of four women in a small Montana town. Native actress Lily Gladstone has gotten the lion’s share of accolades for one of 2016’s best acting performances.
Gladstone’s portrayal of a lonely ranch hand Jamie and her obsession with Kristen Stewart’s (The Twilight Sagas) character -- a new law school graduate turned night school teacher -- garnered a stellar review by the Detroit Press,which said her, “quiet desperation is the heart-rending soul of the movie.”
Gladstone has won several acting awards, including the Los Angeles Film Critics Association Award for Best Supporting Actress and Boston Society of Film Critics Award for Best Supporting Actress, and many hope her success will be replicated with nominations in the SAG Awards, Golden Globes and even the Academy Awards.
Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers (Kainai First Nation [Blood Tribe, Blackfoot Confederacy] and Sámi [Norway]) and Tantoo Cardinal (Métis)
Canadian Feature Film ‘On The Farm’ aka ‘Unclaimed’
Adapted from journalist Stevie Cameron's 2010 book of the same name, the award-winning film ‘On The Farm’ (also known in Canada as CBC telemovie ‘Unclaimed’) uses a combination of real and fictional characters to chronicle the years of police disinterest and ineptitude that allowed Robert Pickton to murder 50 mostly Indigenous women from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside (DTES).
Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers delivers a stirring performance as the drug-addicted sex worker Nikki Taylor who notices the disappearance of an alarming number of women, and teams up with a female police officer and social worker to investigate. Taylor’s stabbing and escape from Pickton becomes central to unravelling the case. Renowned actress Tantoo Cardinal is strong in a supporting role as Nikki’s mother, Ada Taylor.
Filmed on location in the DTES, ‘On The Farm’ “focuses on the innumerable challenges faced by the women in their daily lives – as well as their relationships and burdens – and hands the power back to the victims” Brad Oswald noted in the Winnipeg Free Press.
Imajyn Cardinal (Cree)
Canadian Independent Feature Film ‘The Saver’
‘The Saver’ tells the gritty story of Fern, a teenage girl orphaned in the middle of a harsh Montreal winter. Determined to avoid her mother’s tragic fate, Imajyn Cardinal’s Fern sets out to build a new life for herself. When Youth Protection comes looking, she runs. At one of her mother’s cleaning jobs, she finds the book 50 Ways to Become a Millionaire. “All you need to do is save,” it promises. Fern decides to do just that, replacing her grief with the quest to become a millionaire.
Based on the young adult novel of the same name by Edeet Ravel, the Canadian drama was nominated for Best Film, Best Director and Best Actress in American Indian Film Institute’s American Indian Motion Picture Awards and featured at AIFI’s 41st Annual Film Festival last November.
Jade Hamelin (Cree)
Canadian Independent Short Film ‘Crash Site’
Featured at imagineNative 2016, ‘Crash Site is a short about Kaley, a First Nations girl struggling with the death of her parents. After running away from her sister’s home, Jade Hamelin’s Kaley hides out in a comics shop, where she connects with a First Nations superhero called Thunderbird, who teaches her the power of family.
Roseanne Supernault (East Prairie Métis Settlement) and Michelle Thrush (Cree)
Canadian Independent Feature Film, ‘The Northlander’
Roseanne Supernault as Mari and Michelle Thrush as Nova in 'The Northlander'
Co-executive produced by Adam Beach, ‘The Northlander’ is an Indigenous Canadian adventure/fantasy film inspired by Métis Leader Louis Riel, his journey for identity, and the Battle of Batoche in 1885.
The setting is 2961, a future without technology where humans are struggling to survive because of a lack of food and water. A hunter named Cygnus travels across a desert valley to protect his tribe against a band of Heretics. He must find a way for his people to survive.
Métis director Benjamin Ross Hayden told the CBC he wanted to make a story that was about Canada, and integral to that was hiring First Nations actors. Cree actress Michelle Thrush was his inspiration: "It started with Michelle Thrush. When she came into my mind I literally reinvented characters just to find [a] place for her in this story."
Adam Beach (Saulteaux)
“It’s tough for a Native actor to get cast for a role that wasn’t specifically designed for a Native. That’s just one more reason we should consider it a major success that Adam Beach was cast in Suicide Squad, a DC Comics film starring Will Smith,” wrote ICMN’s Cary Rosenbaum last August.
It’s worth seeing Beach as Christopher Weiss/Slipknot, a mercenary adept at using ropes that allow him to scale any wall or immobilize his opponents -- in the first 10 minutes of the film -- for that reason alone .
Martin Sensmeier (Tlingit, Koyukon-Athabascan, and Irish)
US Feature Film ‘The Magnificent Seven'
2016’s ‘The Magnificent Seven’ is a multicultural remake of the classic western (itself a remake of the 1954 Japanese film, ‘Seven Samurai’) about seven men who help a town struggling under the control of a ruthless industrialist stave off an army of thieves.
Martin Sensmeier held his own as Comanche warrior Red Harvest alongside mainstream A-listers including Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt and Ethan Hawke.
Follow ICTMN Correspondent Lisa J. Ellwood on Twitter at www.twitter.com/IconicImagery