I love the movies. In my tiny hometown, I was on a first-name basis with the clerks of all three stores that rented videos, including the half-gas station, half-movie rental, all rural oasis on the town's main drag. I vividly recall sneaking out of our 7th through 12th grade high school to line up for "Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring" at the three-screen cinema.
In undergrad, I spent my evenings living and breathing movies as a Blockbuster cashier. "Staff Picks" sent many a lover of horror and science fiction my way. Alas, America decided to stay home; Netflix replaced our brick-and-mortar movie geek havens.
Horror films have maintained a steady place throughout. Whether it's the over-the-top comedic gore of Nazi zombies in "Dead Snow," the quiet beauty of a child vampire in "Let the Right One In," or the steadily increasing dread of deep space in "Event Horizon," there's nothing like a good scare.
It was with apprehension that I read Eli Roth had announced his newest creation, "The Green Inferno," after a seven-year hiatus following "Hostel 2." I hadn't bothered to see the sequel, as I saw little entertainment value in its predecessor. Where I found Rob Zombie's gore-filled "The Devil's Rejects" to have humor, interesting characters, and gritty 70s-esque cinematography, "Hostel" was simply violence for the sake of violence. And this time, Roth decided to make Indigenous Peoples into the movie monsters.
Indigenous representations on the silver screen are few and far between. Monotone, feathered and leathered caricatures are often the only role for Native American actors. While every other race has moved into the 21st century, Native characters remain stuck in the past. Between the stereotypes on film, on the side of football helmets, and the Manifest Destiny narrative still taught in schools, it's sadly unsurprising people still ask if I live in a tipi.
Roth took it a step further. These Native peoples weren't just unintelligible savages, they were the source of horror for unsuspecting white activists. Last Thursday, I sat through the film with Amazon Watch, an indigenous rights group that works closely with communities throughout the Amazon region.
Warning: spoilers follow.
The film begins with an introduction to several student activists in New York City. Awkward dialogue and acting ensure openly scoffing at the characters' blind faith that their efforts can and will save the day. The students excitedly travel to the Amazon rainforest to protect an isolated tribe threatened by an encroaching logging company.
Much attention is given to social media and Roth's undisguised disdain for this method of generating awareness. After a standoff in which the students implausibly stream video from the jungle of armed loggers threatening their lives, the day is saved when it is revealed one student is the daughter of a U.N. attorney. If privileged naïveté hadn't been shoved down the audience's throat enough yet, here was a reminder.
The students board a plane back, which ends up crashing in the jungle and drawing the attention of the tribe of cannibals they set out to save.
Here's where fear of the "other" becomes the primary storyline: crash survivors encounter hundreds of Natives in head-to-toe body paint, who proceed to fondle the white skin and blonde hair of the new arrivals. Discomfort at the thought of being touched by more-animal-than-human masses aside, I immediately began wondering how Roth would address the remaining black character.
Photo courtesy flickeringmyth.com
The camera markedly avoids the surviving activist of color in the moment emphasizing terror elicited by painted brown folks, and Roth dispenses with the issue immediately — within moments the character is hacked to pieces and eaten by the tribe.
After a few more largely uninteresting death scenes in which the remaining activists constantly wonder aloud what "they" are doing to "us," the sole surviving heroine escapes by befriending a nameless, dialogue-free Native girl and dangling a shiny object in front of her.
Yeah, you read that right. Roth's final girl uses a necklace to entice an uncivilized savage child into freeing her. But what's the harm in presenting indigenous peoples as uneducated beasts, right? When has dehumanization ever made inhumane actions easier? I digress.
The movie concludes with a confrontation between the heroine and loggers gunning down the tribe. Cell phone upraised, she single-handedly stops the slaughter with the threat of media exposure. Back in New York, she tells government officials that the tribe was friendly and rescued her. With the saving of the Native community complete, Roth ends with a scene setting up the next sequel.
Unsurprisingly to everyone but Roth, numerous Indigenous Peoples and organizations have denounced the film. He has argued that criticism about the manner in which he chose to portray Native people is unfounded; the tribe is fictional and correlating any real-world effects is "absurd." One would hope a filmmaker grasps the impact of media on public perception, particularly when those rare representations are largely dehumanizing. At this moment, existing isolated tribes in the Amazon face enormous pressures from resource-hungry extractive industries. The fate of no-contact legislative protections is uncertain, increasing the very real threat of disease and destruction of lands.
Roth himself has switched tacks on the intent of the film — these days he's touting monetary donations he's made to indigenous and environmental groups, and recalling tales of how much the tribe he featured loved the film crew. It's a far cry from prior interviews where he joked, "We [had] to tell them what a movie is ... They've never even seen a television ... [B]y the end they were all playing with iPhones and iPads. We've completely polluted the social system and fucked them up."
"The Green Inferno" not only trivializes grassroots efforts to draw attention to the plight of Amazonian tribes, it further entrenches the understanding that tribes are uncivilized relics from the past. Controlled contact and assimilation efforts aren't as unpalatable when tribes are viewed as "other" and incapable of self-determination.
Roth fails to realize that Native peoples and cultures have survived despite all odds; our fights are sophisticated and ongoing. Relegating us to the dregs of society is no longer acceptable. Simon Moya-Smith, Culture Editor of Indian Country Today, summed it up: "'The Green Inferno' is the 21st century cinematic demonstration of white fear ... they are right to fear us, but not for the reason this Jewish filmmaker would suggest."
With any luck, this lackluster horror film and its primitive depiction of Indigenous Peoples will quickly fade into unprofitable obscurity.
Tara Houska. Photo courtesy Josh Daniels.
Tara Houska (Couchiching First Nation) is a tribal rights attorney in Washington, D.C., a founding member of NotYourMascots.org, and an all-around rabble rouser. Follow her: @zhaabowekwe.