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Q&A: 'Reel Injun' Director Neil Diamond

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Neil Diamond, director of Reel Injun, talks about those “classic westerns” and Jack Sparrow as Tonto

Reel Injun is a documentary about the history of Native Americans on film—particularly the ridiculous portrayals in westerns. What was the worst of the worst?
In A Man Called Horse an elderly woman’s son dies, and there’s a scene where the Lakota let her freeze to death. She’s wandering around this village in winter—that would never have happened. The Sioux were very communal, they shared food, like when they killed a buffalo they would share it with everybody. So the idea that they’d just let an old woman die—that’s pretty offensive

Were there any films that got it right?
No. There hasn’t been an accurate story told about that time. Little Big Horn, the Sioux—there have been so many movies made but none of them get the story right. It would be great to make a film that told what it was really like for the Sioux. That was one of Marlon Brando’s great regrets. In an interview near the end of his life, he said that he had a film about Native Americans he was trying to get made that nobody would touch. He had the script and everything, but nobody would fund it.

What’s the most common way Hollywood mis-portrayed Native Americans?
The spiritual elder who is always so serious. If you talk to spiritual leaders, they use humor. They joke around. If you’re in a sweat lodge, they’ll be telling jokes. But in the movies the Indians were always scowling and deadly serious. The first time I saw a native actor laugh it was Chief Dan George in Little Big Man. I remember thinking, I have never seen a native actor laugh, ever.

What other Native American performances broke the mold?
One of my favorites was Gary Farmer in Dead Man—that was really a different kind of portrayal than the stereotype. He was this irreverent, chubby Indian, not at all like the ones from the old John Wayne movies. And that was the first time I heard Cree being spoken on film. He’s having sex with his woman, they’re under the blankets and then they start fighting. She curses him in Cree—she uses a Cree term for penis. And then Gary Farmer is chasing after her using a common Cree term of endearment, he’s saying “My puppy, come back my puppy…” I grew up speaking Cree, and I still speak it; in fact I wasn’t comfortable with English until I was about 14 years old, so I thought it was great that Gary Farmer was saying something a Cree would really say. That’s not always the case.

How so?
For instance, John Ford shot films in Monument Valley, on the Utah/Arizona border. He would use Navajo to play Apache, Sioux, Comanche, Cheyenne—basically the Navajo played everyone but themselves. The Navajo would play tricks—Ford would give a line to the interpreter, and the interpreter would tell the Navajo what to say, and that line would show up in English subtitles in the film. But the Navajos wouldn’t say the line they’d been told. They did this all the time. In one film, A Distant Trumpet—which was not a John Ford film, but was shot with Navajo actors—the cavalry officer is negotiating with the Indian chief, warning him to comply. The chief says something, but the Navajo words he’s saying don’t agree with the English subtitle. In Navajo, he’s saying “You can’t do anything to me, you’re just a snake crawling in your own shit… ”

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What do you think about Johnny Depp playing Tonto?
I think it’s an interesting choice. I spoke with Adam Beach, who auditioned for the role, and he says the part is very different from the TV character. The character of Tonto is more of a storyteller, teacher and wise man, not so much a sidekick. I’m excited to see what Johnny Depp does with it.

Do you have a fundamental issue with a white actor playing a Native American?
Well, Johnny Depp is part Cherokee—he said so on Inside the Actors Studio; you can see the clip on YouTube. He also directed and starred in a film called The Brave in the 1990s, with Marlon Brando, which was never released in the United States. It was about snuff films, and he played a California Native person. But for me, it’s about the actor.

John Wayne was the Hollywood ideal of the heroic cowboy; who was his opposite number?
You’d have the warlike chief who was constantly hounding John Wayne. He’s all about blocking Wayne’s efforts to change things. He’s anti-progress. A great example is the Comanche chief in The Searchers, Chief Scar—who was, of course, played by a German actor, Henry Brandon.

Which brings us back to non-natives playing Native Americans. Do you have a favorite?
I think it has to be Rock Hudson in Taza, Son of Cochise. I mean, Rock Hudson as an Apache!

Through the end of January, Reel Injun is screening for free at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.