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DiCaprio and 'The Revenant': Remaking Movie Mythology

The Revenant is a film that revamps American mythology. There’s an expediency and urgency as it’s photographed in panoramic long seemingly one shot takes. It couldn’t be done on film, had to be digital. All the stories are true about harsh conditions, three hours of light per day, as few retakes as possible, tons of prep work, training, timing issues, arguments and literal infighting, then over-runs hitting $135 million. The film supported 15,000 jobs repping hundreds of thousands of work hours. That’s why you won’t see a big time or big budget Native film project developed and made by Natives with all Native crews, anytime soon. There were a lot of Natives in the credits but like the population statistics, a small percentage of a big project. All we can do is continue to develop a grassroots cinematic culture of story-telling and vision-making.

So was the representation worth it or worthwhile? For most people it is a resounding YES, and some of that is begrudging respect for gritty, grimy, snow, ice, fire, smoke and blood filled scenes along with the human narrative. It looks realistic as our ancestors faced inconceivable hardships, and we get to hear Native actor Duane Howard say, “You all have stolen everything...from my people.” There are visual dream sequences that balance the unrelenting aggression that characters have to face. Excellent use of angles and panoramic scenes pit the human scale against the immenseness of Nature. “Revenge is in Creator’s hands” says Arthur Red Cloud’s character in helping Leonardo DiCaprio’s character, Hugh Glass, survive. Today’s audience is far removed from these myth-making times. So there are critics who feel it is too macho, too manly, too incomprehensible and maybe too much rugged individualism? That is funny because all kinds of people can recall those “hard old days” weren’t that long ago. Natives had to do all that and more. In the story-line, 200 years ago, Natives still had to struggle to be seen and heard and not killed.

Tom Hardy’s Fitzgerald and DiCaprio’s Hugh Glass represent the worst and the best of the American mythology, but Glass seeks redemption born from the land, mixed with Native blood and kin. A land-rooted American in opposition to a money-based exploitive culture. Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) is Glass’s son from his Pawnee wife (Grace Dove), he is angry a lot of the time, just as you see many young men today. At least back then you can see the enemy, they’re trying to kill you. Duane Howard is the Ree chief Elk Dog looking for his daughter Powaqa (Melaw Nahkeko) who is aided by Glass in her escape. Arthur Red Cloud plays a sympathetic Pawnee ally to a recovering Glass. Fitzgerald debates Glass about God and who is really God among all the killing and death. Glass delivers low-key right-on nuggets, Fitzgerald talks incessantly covering up his untruths.

Yes, Leo is attacked and mauled by a grizzly bear. Yes, Leo eats raw protein, to survive, like you do. And yes, it’s a tale of revenge and redemption. For some critics it is too much manly “R&R” but they are writing from New York City and show bias in their comfort and distance from that period of myth-making. The movie deals in contracts and business, family and violence against that family, and violence against all, some more than others. Then there are sublime moments of peace and serenity, again Nature providing backdrop and a familiar character. The photographer captures the actuality but the director is saying another thing. That Alejandro Inarittu is Mexican explains a narrative coming from a different place not Hollywood or Europe. The myth of the rugged individual is in opposition to Nature. Do the math, undo the myth. One against Nature really doesn’t work. You need help from allies or family and it helps to understand Nature not fight it.

Cheyenne professor Leo Killsback makes excellent points of Native Perspective in his review of the movie. The New York critics say there was no female presence, ignoring the Native women as if expecting school-marms, settler wives or saloon tarts. These brutalities are the actual scenarios present at the beginning of this country and why the settler mythos had to evolve into the myth of nation building. Critics may find it hard to do their homework and tie-in the past to present day realities, yet Natives are confronted with this every day at some level. It’s about time Americans have to confront it too. The Lewis and Clark anniversary came and went and Americans didn’t care. The Bundy Family Cohorts take over a snowbound federal building (near the same geography) and has food and socks delivered by fans. Survival? Reality? Justice?

Natives have been generally appreciative of DiCaprio’s speech at the Golden Globes thanking the First Nations actors and committing to the cause of Indigenous Rights to the land against corporate exploitation. Commentators have mentioned it in reference to Marlon Brando’s 1973 Oscar refusal speech, partially delivered by actress Sacheen Littlefeather. There are also great forever movie minutes in the 2015 documentary “Listen to Me Marlon” in which Brando relates his speech on the Dick Cavett Show. Brando says Indians struggle to be heard as humans, just as Hawk struggles to be seen in the film. It’s been 43 years folks, and so what has changed for the good and what has not changed in that time.

Some Native critics think we are still secondary elements with the same old plot devices, roles and minimal dialogue, to quote my friend, Ishkoten Dougi, “The only good Indian actors are acting as a dead Indian actors…I know where my heart is and I don’t want to be buried at Wounded Knee…again.” But it is a prime opportunity to get involved in critical thinking, even if the film-makers didn’t mean half the things attributed to them, it is obvious to Native people and how it all ties together. The American Narrative starts in bloodshed, revenge and retribution, set on the beautiful stage of Nature’s power. We live with the results today.

Alex Jacobs, Mohawk, is a visual artist and poet living in Santa Fe.