The motion picture industry is finally showing proper respect for Native American and First Nation actors, movies and documentaries. This past season has seen an exciting mash-up of indigenous artists who shined bright on the silver screens across Turtle Island. Here is a brief selection of some highlights.
Eugene Brave Rock / Wonder Woman
Wonder Woman, starring Gal Gadot, is the most successful DC movie to date. Such success indicates the DC brand may have finally gotten it together with the direction of Patty Jenkins, but it is Eugene Brave Rock as Napi, the native demi-god, who speaks Blackfoot to Diana Prince/Wonder Woman, that has made waves in Indian country. Napi looks to be a recurring figure in the DC movie world. Brave Rock has been an actor and a stuntman in several films and ran the stunt ‘boot camp’ for The Revenant.
Wind River is Taylor Sheridan’s first film as a director, after he wrote the screenplays for Sicario, Soldado and Hell or High Water. Wind River is a chilling thriller that follows a rookie FBI agent (Elizabeth Olsen) who teams up with a local game-tracker ( Jeremy Renner) to investigate the murder of a local girl on the remote Wind River Indian Reservation. Since it has Native actors Gil Birmingham, Graham Greene, Martin Sensmeier, Julia Jones, Tantoo Cardinal and Tokala Clifford, Indian country is chomping at the bit to see this film. To add to its credibility, the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapahoe Nations at Wind River were on set and were supportive of the filming.
Wilma Mankiller was the first woman elected Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation. A poignant, thoughtful and captivating documentary, Mankiller tells a veritable “Phoenix rising from the ashes” story about a woman who, as a little girl, was forced to participate in the Indian relocation program and leave her Cherokee tribe and culture behind. The story of Wilma Mankiller is well-known in Indian country, but the combination of efforts of Native director Valerie Red-Horse Mohl and Hollywood heavyweight producer Gale Anne Hurd (The Terminator, Aliens, The Incredible Hulk and The Walking Dead) provided some long-needed feminine energy to create this powerful work.
Awake, A Dream From Standing Rock
Awake, A Dream From Standing Rock captures the story of the Native-led opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline that forever changed how we fight for our environment and the future of our planet. This feature-length documentary is a veritable who’s-who for Hollywood and Indian country, directed by Academy Award-nominated filmmaker and activist Josh Fox (Gasland, How To Let Go Of The World And Learn To Love Everything Climate Can’t Change), Academy Award-nominated filmmaker James Spione (Incident In New Baghdad) and indigenous filmmaker and Digital Smoke Signals founder Myron Dewey. The film is written by Floris White Bull, Fox and Dewey, and is executive produced by Shailene Woodley, Doug Good Feather and Emmy Award-winning filmmakers Amy Zeirling and Lauren Taschen.
Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World
Rumble is a feature documentary about the influence of Native American musicians on American music, including blues, jazz, folk and rock and roll. The film is a product of seven years of research and production initiated by Tim Johnson (Mohawk), who was an Associate Director for Museum Programs at the National Museum of the American Indian. Rumble won “World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Award for Masterful Storytelling” at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Featured stories include those of Charlie Patton, Mildred Bailey, Jesse Ed Davis and Randy Castillo, with interviews of Buffy Ste. Marie, Robbie Robertson, Pura Fe, Taj Mahal, John Trudell and many others.
Native Hawaiian Jason Momoa stars as Aquaman in this sequel to Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice in which Batman and Wonder Woman seek to recruit a team of metahumans to face a new enemy. Eschewing the orange and green rubber Aquaman suit from the 1970s, Momoa rocks a trident, scales and tattoos as a contemporary, hard-edged Aquaman. Other characters include Flash, Cyborg, Lex Luthor and several other characters from the Batman, Wonder Woman and Superman franchises.
Neither Wolf Nor Dog
Kent Nerburn (Christopher Sweeney) embarks on a bizarre road trip with two Native Americans, Lakota elder Dan (portrayed by the late Dave Bald Eagle) and his friend Grover (Richard Ray Whitman) in a quest to unravel a mysterious Native family history. Directed by Steven Lewis Simpson, the film has strong performances by Roseanne Supernault, Tatanka Means, Zahn McClarnon and Harlen Standing Bear. Neither Wolf Nor Dog was made in 2016 on limited time and budget; and then was self-distributed in 2017.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople
This family comedy stars Julian Dennison, a Maori from Naenae, New Zealand, and veteran actor Sam Neill. Dennison is a rising young actor who won the role of Ricky Baker in this film without an audition due to his previous work. Director Taika Waititi, a fellow Maori, fell in love with the young actor and apparently everyone else did, too, as Hunt for the Wilderpeople has beome New Zealand’s top grossing movie.