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'Revenant' Review: It’s Ok, But Still the Same Ol’ White Savior Stuff for Native People

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NOTE: This review contains spoilers—both of the movie and also for those tender hearts who think that Leonardo DiCaprio is somehow doing something progressive for Native people. 

Disclaimer: Leonardo DiCaprio is my favorite actor (although Liam Neeson is quickly catching up). He’s been my favorite actor since “The Aviator”; the boy has played in some classics. “Shutter Island,” “Inception,” “Catch Me If You Can,” “Gangs of New York,” “Basketball Diaries”…ok, ok even “Titanic.” He’s played in so many classics that I’ll forgive him for “J. Edgar Hoover.”

That’s how much I like him. 

Revenant is no classic. It’s cool, but not great. And socially, in the words of Graham Greene in “Thunderheart,” “it’s the second coming of the same old cavalry.” Of course, some Natives have taken to him in recent months because he dedicated a good thirty seconds to Native people during his speech during the Golden Globe Awards. They wanted to compare his short sound bite to Marlon Brando’s Oscar Awards protest decades ago. Also, a few more Natives went fully Team Leo because he spent half a day taking selfies with Native people during the March on Climate Change and those selfies and that half a day was proof that he’s real about change.

LOL. Lots of Hollywood actors have pet “causes” with no risk. He hasn’t shown that he’s any different. Yet.

The Brando comparison? Silly. Historically, it doesn’t add up. Marlon Brando, from his privileged position, actually took some risk. Not only was he willing to get arrested for participating in a fish-in with the Natives in the Pacific Northwest and marching in protests where lots of folks got arrested, he also stayed involved in the cause through Wounded Knee II. Most importantly Brando did not try to speak for Native people during his “awards show” moment. Instead, he did what real allies do and relinquished his platform for Native people to speak for ourselves—entrusting a Native woman Sacheen LittleFeather to use her brilliance, voice, volition and self-determination. As much as I like DiCaprio’s acting, he’s still acting when it comes to being an ally as long as he does the typical white man thing and chooses to speak for us. 

Well, that really has nothing to do with the movie Revenant, does it? Au contraire!!! (I figured since there were French Fur Traders featured in the movie that little bit of French language would be appropriate). It’s actually largely the same story in the movie—it would have been cool if he surrendered that space for Native people to have some agency.

See, the movie is cool. It’s solid. It’s visually stunning and shows all of the beauty, seductiveness and danger that this continent had to offer. No wonder European settlers wanted to be here—they were starving over in Europe, with no possibility of ever improving their lots in life before they died at the ripe old age of 35. Hence, they were willing to risk (seemingly) almost certain death to try to find their fortunes here. The movie captures that amazingly. 

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The movie also portrays Native people in a fairly historically accurate light. Native people were brutal during this time period because we had to be brutal. White Americans were brutal. French people were brutal. Native people could not be exempt from that world and were trying to hold on for dear life; guns, germs and steel threatened our very existence. If the movie hadn’t shown Native people with a willingness to participate in the brutality of the time period it would have been inaccurate and dangerous as it would have stripped our ancestors of the dignity of protecting our people at all costs. The white men were terrified of “The Ree” (the Arikara people) and probably with good reason; from historical accounts and also from the movie, the Ree could get down with the best of them and were fierce warriors defending their people.

But the actual human story pushed Revenant into the same “white savior” garbage pile that has permeated pretty much any mainstream movie that includes Natives as major characters. DiCaprio’s “Glass” character is a dirty, vicious, capitalistic and brutal white man who is trying to get some quick money at the expense of Native people’s resources just like every other white man in the movie. The only difference is that Glass has a half-Native son (some of his best friends are black) and so that, evidently, somehow makes him different than the rest of the dirty, vicious, brutal and capitalistic white men. Glass instructs his half-Native son to be silent and to not upset white men, for survival, as white men hold the key to Native people’s survival and can exterminate them at any time. “Be invisible.”

When one of those other dirty, vicious, capitalistic brutal white men kills Glass’s son, DiCaprio goes full-on Native; somehow surviving the worst tragedies, misfortunes and pains that the world can throw at him (‘cause that’s what we do). He’s bent on revenge—the only way that he can find redemption is through avenging his Native son. And that’s kinda the way Hollywood historically uses Native people and black bodies: as lesson providers and tragic figures. We usually don’t live long enough to see the glory of the white man’s redemption, but instead have to be killed so that the white protagonist can find his or her humanity.

That’s exactly what happens here. A Pawnee man also helps Glass find his humanity by teaching Glass that revenge is “in God’s hands.” Neither of these Native muses, the son or the Pawnee man, are alive long enough to see Glass’s redemption (the Pawnee man is soon seen dangling from a tree because Native people cannot teach a spiritual lesson and live in the same movie), but those dead Indians should rest easy knowing that their mission in life was completed: rescuing the white man’s humanity. 

Along the way, Glass also rescues a young Arikara woman from being raped. She is the only other female character that gets more than a few frames and both of those Native women are brutalized—the first, Glass’s wife, gets killed by soldiers and this young Ree lady gets raped by the French. Of course that violence has historical roots and even today has resonance—Native women are raped at exponentially higher rates than anyone else in this nation. Yet, it seems almost a conspiracy how little control, autonomy or voice Native people were given over our own lives in this movie. While brutality against Native people is historically accurate so is Native people being free and having agency. Yet Hollywood loves for us to be helpless and needing white people’s saving. The only time we’re not helpless in these movies is when we’re dead and a white man is learning a lesson from beyond our graves. Natives are always the objects in Hollywood’s movies, never the subjects. 

The Revenant is no different. 

The movie is cool. Visually stunning and it’s always cool to see Native actors in a huge movie. If you’re looking for that, go see it by all means. If you want to see one of Leo’s best movies go watch The Aviator or Shutter Island. The politics? The same old thing that white Hollywood has always shown of Native people. I truly hope that Leonardo DiCaprio turns into an ally for our communities in the way that Marlon Brando was—it seems like he could be effective as an ally if he were to really work at it. I hope so. But right now? Simply the second coming of the same old cavalry. 

Wesley Roach, Skan Photography

Gyasi Ross, Editor at Large
Blackfeet Nation/Suquamish Territories
Twitter: @BigIndianGyasi