On April 23, ICTMN and other news sources reported that Native extras had walked off the set of Adam Sandler’s latest movie, The Ridiculous Six, to protest inaccuracies and insulting stereotypes in the script.
What we didn’t hear from was the large contingent of Native extras, in fact the overwhelming majority of them, who remained on the set, and who didn’t share the sentiments of those who’d taken their case to the media. Some of these actors had signed confidentiality agreements, while others wanted to speak up but didn’t have an outlet, or were even intimidated from doing so.
They’ve endured insults and received threats from within Indian country. It’s time they had their say. ICTMN spoke with actors Ricky Lee, John Gates, and Bonifacio Gurule, as well as Molly Putsch, mother to an experienced child actor who was part of the production. Here, in their own words, is their side of the story that has inspired so much passion and contention in Indian country.
CONFUSION FROM THE START
MOLLY PUTSCH: What the producers wanted was a portrayal of Hollywood stereotypes of the ‘50s and ‘60s. But it was hard for the producers to express that. At first, I thought they were looking for a true cultural depiction of a Tribe. But that’s not what they wanted.
RICKY LEE: We all had buckskins on, and Apaches didn’t wear buckskins. And there’s tipis, and Apaches didn’t live in tipis. So everybody went into it like “Ok, this is a joke. This is how it’s gonna be.” It’s a comedy. It’s a stupid comedy. A slapstick, Saturday Night Live comedy.
PUTSCH: Bruce [Klinekole, an actor and cultural advisor] was concerned about some of the costuming, the feathers—he had told me, “Well, we don’t wear feathers in our hair. We don’t dress like this.” And I said, as a Navajo, “I know, neither do we. But I don’t think this is a true depiction of your culture, and I’m not sure anybody told you that.” He looked at me with a surprised look on his face. A lot of actresses were wearing the traditional Apache clothes, the cloth dresses, and the producers called them all back and said “You’re too Apache looking,” and they put them all in buckskin. That was kind of a hint that they didn’t want to portray the Apache tribe at a particular time.
JOHN GATES: Bruce had tried to talk with Adam Sandler on Wednesday, about something that was going on, but he wasn’t in my opinion being really specific, regarding what he wished to talk to him about as a consultant. In the middle of filming, they’ve got over 200 people working, and everything has to go right. So when something like that comes up, I don’t think it’s unusual for it to be put aside for the time being, unless the person can articulate something really specific that needs to be done in a specific scene.
PUTSCH: I thought it was wrong that they weren't forthright with Bruce about what they wanted and misleading him as to what they really wanted. They could have avoided a lot of the confusion. And I feel so bad for him, because he’s a really good person, and a very wise person, especially about the culture. This wasn’t the first film I’d been on with him; my son and he did Cowboys and Aliens. And there, they did a great job with the culture, because that’s what they wanted in that film.
THE CONTENT OF RIDICULOUS SIX
BONIFACIO GURULE: I don’t think any extras knew the content of the movie, except that it’s Adam Sandler, and Adam Sandler’s 8-year-old sophomoric humor. But it’s funny. He’s a funny guy. And that’s why I tried to get on that set.
GATES: I was aware of those names in the script—Smoking Fox, Never-Wears-Bra, and Beaver Breath. I had heard about them at the audition in Albuquerque. There was a young Navajo woman there reading for the part of Beaver Breath. She did not get it. I asked the girl what part she was reading for, she said Beaver Breath, and I could tell she was sort of embarrassed by that. As a matter of fact, anybody would have been. So, I was aware of those names before we started working on the film, and Bruce, the consultant, was aware of those names.
GURULE: You’re not supposed to watch the monitors, but I was watching the monitors and they were having this conversation about using small animals for toilet paper. And I thought, well it is a comedy; I didn’t think it was that funny, but once you understand the backstory of the movie it would be funny. Especially understanding Adam Sandler’s humor. So that’s the only thing that struck me as possibly offensive.
LEE: Everybody kind of went along with it for awhile, and then it was actually David Hill who started talking to some of the young people and saying “Well, this isn’t right,” trying to rally the troops.
GATES: I would not say anyone was overreacting. I think they were being true to themselves. I believe they weren’t comfortable being there. You know, Mr. Hill was talking about the incidence of Native suicide among our youth, and he was concerned about that. The negative images that are sometimes portrayed in media about us, he thinks contributes to that phenomenon.
GURULE: When the directors and everybody would leave our tent where all the extras were supposed to stay grouped, until they call us out again, Bruce would start, like a hate campaign—I don’t know how else to say it. A speech, trying to get everybody all riled up that we’re being oppressed. Everybody listened to him, to be respectful, because he’s an elder, he’s an older guy. And a few of the young ones were swayed by it.
GATES: I had been talking to Bruce early on Wednesday, this was hours before the walkout occurred, about some things—how we could inject some Native humor into the script, and he kind of liked my ideas. But at that time, getting towards the middle to the later part of the morning, I could tell that there were some people in the group who wanted to bring this issue up about stereotyping and the negative connotations of those names or scenes, and people started discussing that in the extra tent that they had. Most of us were in there. People were listening—you have to realize, there were a lot of different people there with a lot of different backgrounds and a lot of different motivations.
PUTSCH: My son loves Adam Sandler movies. So he already knew what type of humor it was going to be. And I was actually surprised by how tame it was, because I know Adam Sandler can be a lot cruder than that. I didn’t take offense to it. The words that they say, you can use toward any woman, any race or color. I don’t think they were insults toward Natives. I don’t take offense to those types of words as a woman either. I’m just not that type of person. I’m not that sensitive. And I’ve taught my son the same way: Don’t be so sensitive. Because Natives have a crass sense of humor towards each other anyway. So if you’re going to get teased, if you have something different about you, you’re going to have to be able to take that teasing. I could understand if some parents were offended by it, but the ones I talked to weren’t.
GATES: I was probably the only person on set never to have seen an Adam Sandler movie. I wouldn’t have known him if I saw him on the street. But I also knew a lot more about the vaguely general storyline than anybody there did, including the people who wrote it. The spirit of Adam’s movie came from Karl May’s book Winnetou, and while it might not track exactly, it’s pure Karl May. Winnetou is the most widely read novel of any German author in history. So to me, knowing how venerated Winnetou is in Germany, by generations and generations of people, I could tell that Adam’s character was going to end up being a good guy.
GURULE: The humor seemed a little off-color, with the names, Beaver Breath, Never-Wears-Bra. But the movie is making fun of everybody. Adam Sandler’s Jewish himself. They were making fun of all races—Jews, black people, Asians, and they were cracking white-people jokes too. But you didn’t see any white people walk off the set.
GATES: I can’t speak to some of the things that have been written about, some of the more vile scenes. Who knows if they’ll even be in the final cut? I don’t think anybody knows that. I didn’t see anything on set that was offensive to me, at all. But I wasn’t there all the time—I was in three scenes. I saw some pretty outrageous things, don’t get me wrong. But I didn’t see anything that, in its context, I could object to strenuously.
A CRITICAL MEETING WITH THE PRODUCERS
GATES: In the middle part of the afternoon, 2 or 3 in the afternoon, the production company was filming the scene not too far from where our extra location was. At that point in time, David Hill led a few of us up towards where they were filming. I was up there because I was asked to go there by several people who were really not on the same page with some of the others who wanted to walk out.
LEE: We went to talk to the producers, and they stated their issues, they didn’t like, you know, Beaver Breath. And they demanded they take it out. The producers at that point said, "Well, you know, we’ve already shot it. We’re at the end of our shoot. It’ll cost a million dollars or more to go back and take that word out and redo it." So he suggested maybe there’s a slim chance they might be able to do something in editing. He also pointed out to everybody standing there, John, myself and the four others, that in the beginning, they sat down at the table read, they gave all the Native American actors the script, they said, if you find anything offensive whatsoever, let us know and we’ll take it out. So all the A and B actors—that’s the stars, and the actors with secondary roles—signed off on the script.
GATES: I put my mediator hat on and listened to all this stuff going on. It became apparent at that point in time that two things were not going to happen. They were not going to change the names, and they weren’t going to change the script at that point, because they were within 3 or 4 days of wrapping the whole production. It was just not gonna happen.
LEE: At the end of this conversation, John, the attorney, said, “Let’s do this.” He was talking to both parties. He said to the four who walked off, he said, “Would you guys feel comfortable if they put a disclaimer?” And then he turned to the producer and said, “Would you feel comfortable? Would you put a disclaimer that this is not a historically accurate film, it doesn’t portray any one nation, and it’s not to offend anyone. Or meant to offend anyone.”
GATES: [Associate Producer] Barry Bernardi represented to everyone there, including Mr. Hill, myself, Ricky Lee, that because of the controversy brewing, Netflix would agree to write a disclaimer at the front of the movie. Probably just a boilerplate disclaimer. And that seemed to go over well with most people there. I believe it was a good-faith effort to address the concerns.
LEE: Everybody shook hands, everybody was kind, nobody was screaming back and forth. Although David Hill and Loren threatened to go to the media, before they walked off. And that was kind of the end of the story. They went back to camp, and we all got lost in the shuffle of work, and then at the end of the day we noticed, hey, they’re not here. David, Loren, Goldie and Allie had disappeared.
HEARD IT THROUGH THE GRAPEVINE
LEE: Four people left. Counting Bruce, who had left earlier in the day, it was five. 150 Native actors stayed on that set—I know that number for a fact because my friend’s the casting director.
GATES: The next day, we started to hear that there was a lot of stuff on the internet, that the people who had walked off had already spoken to the media about the walkout.
PUTSCH: My son and I didn’t get to the set until Thursday. Right before we drove onto the set, my phone started going off. My friends—well, the ones who had read the article and were offended—were saying “Did you see what’s happening? This is bad, why haven’t you walked off the set? You need to take your son off the set right now.” Telling me what I should do with my son.
LEE: When we heard what these four had said to the media, our reaction was kind of embarrassment. Like, “Oh my god, they did that?” And then everybody kind of felt betrayed, because what’s it say for all the people who stayed? Are you saying that we sold out? What are you saying?
PUTSCH: I was concerned for the kids and the elders. A lot of people were ignoring them in this. So I asked a couple elders how they felt. They said they were fine with the script and the humor. They knew exactly what they were getting into. I mean, if you’re going to act in a movie, you should research what you’re doing. The casting directors told me, “Look, it’s Adam Sandler, it’s going to be crude and rude sometimes.” I was like “Yeah, of course.”
GURULE: Everybody stayed, they worked through the night. But it just put kind of a dark energy on the rest of the day and into the night. Until we had this dance, with Apache dancers.
LEE: Early Friday morning, like 2 AM in the morning, these Apache dancers come. And they’re from White Mountain. So they drove a ways. And they performed this dance—it’s really an awesome dance. So they sure would not have come and performed that if they felt discriminated against or felt racism on the set. And just being a part of that—we’re like, in this encampment, it’s that early in the morning, there’s a big blazing fire. There’s this circle of Natives, and the dancers in the center, dancing through this fire. When it was over, everybody was speechless for a good five to ten seconds, and then everybody started applauding the dancers and shaking their hands. And they were so pleased that they gave Adam Sandler a gift, they also gave the production company Pendleton blankets, because they felt so good.
GURULE: And that was like a religious experience. Adam was there, the dancers were there, and it changed the whole energy of the movie again.
LEE: The Gathering of Nations started the next day, so the dancers all went to the Gathering, and they performed there. And somebody, a group of people, followed them home and broke into their car, and stole all their regalia, all their drums out of their car. Because they were in the movie. And you know, I saw the videos, I heard the announcer firing everybody up—20,000 people daring Adam Sandler to come down there.
THE THING ABOUT SKIN
GATES: Some of the criticism, like “Oh, they made me put bronze on my skin because I wasn’t brown enough”—you know, this is movies. Most of us don’t go around walking under these lights and knowing what we look like under these lights. So you just have to leave it to the professionals. No one asked me to put a bird on my head like Johnny Depp. I don’t know that I would have gone for that too much.
GURULE: Allie went on MSNBC and talked about how they bronzed her. Yeah—she was too light! They got the spray paint and they made her darker. Everybody gets bronzed! It was a period piece, it was 1880, when everybody was out in the sun all the time. Same thing with wigs—a lot of the Natives on set, they put wigs on them, because they didn’t have long hair. Same thing.
GATES: This was not a Discovery Channel or National Geographic production. This was an Adam Sandler movie.
PUTSCH: My son was actually painted orange for True Grit. He looked orange. But it was because of the lighting, it washes your skin out and makes it dull. So unless you want to go on set and look like a total ghost, that’s what’s gonna happen. You go to makeup—everyone goes.
GATES: Some people have a lot more experience in movies than I do, but honestly, I’ve been around a long time. And I can really sense when people are being disrespectful towards me, or have some sort of chip on their shoulder towards Natives. I can sense it, like most people can. And I never once sensed that from anyone.
GURULE: I’ve been doing extra work for 12 years. There’s a lot of sets you go to where they call it a “cattle call”—and there’s a reason for that. You’re treated like cattle. They herd you into this area, then they herd you back. But this set, they treated us like we were the stars. They put is up in a very nice hotel in Las Vegas (New Mexico)—us, the extras. I was shocked. On set, they had lobster, and crab, and shaved lamb, and prime rib. They were just feeding us all the time. I gained 10 pounds that week, it was such a party. It was the greatest set I’ve ever been on.
LEE: Well, this is where people are going to say “Oh, you’re just nosing up to the producers,” or “you’ve been paid off,” but I think that, honest to god, if you talk to anybody that was on set, they’re gonna tell you it was probably one of the best working environments ever. And in New Mexico, a lot of people make their living as extras, as background artists. And we’ve been on a lot of sets. And that’s why some of us want to speak up, because it was such a great working environment, and all the things that they’re saying are just not true. There was no racism, there was no sexism, there was no discrimination on the set, and everybody was equal. It was almost like a family environment. Adam Sandler had his kids, they were running around, they were dressed like pioneers. Some of the other actors had their kids and family on the set.
GATES: I thought it was a tremendous experience. I got to meet a lot of people from all over Indian country. I met a lot of young actors who were really trying to do their best to make money in this industry. I was treated with total respect from everyone, including the people who fed us, to the people who worked on my hair, the people who did the makeup.
LEE: One of my most enjoyable points on the set was I was sitting on a log and this gray-haired, balding kind of, old rusty man who was part of the cast comes up and sits down next to me, starts talking to me. And then when I heard his voice I realized it was Nick Nolte. So he started telling me about growing up in Nebraska, I’m from Kansas, we’re both Big 12 fans, you know, he played football for the University of Nebraska. And in his childhood, from grade school on, his best friend was Native. So he just told me, you know, he told me the story. And it was cool, man. It was awesome. Awesome actor too.
GATES: Saginaw Grant didn’t think it was disrespectful, but he was asking a young woman next to me, point-blank: "Have we done something wrong?" And the young lady was very nice to him and said "No, grandfather, I think that everyone’s been treating us nice here."
GURULE: They hired these hip hop dancers from L.A., and they taught the Natives how to do these hip hop dances, and there’s this wedding scene where they break into a line dance. It was hilarious! It’s really cute and funny to see all these Natives getting down and doing a hip hop dance. And there’s white people at the wedding too, and they’re dancing. And at the end, Saginaw Grant looks over and he says “White man can’t dance.” It was just so funny! But that could be considered a racist joke also, you know? But nobody complained about that. It works both ways.
PUTSCH: I took a photo of somebody’s comment online, it says, “Any Native that played a part in that movie should get their ass whupped.” To me, that’s directed at everybody, including kids. And that one was nice, compared to some I’ve read. And then I started talking to other actors, and we started communicating amongst each other, and asking each other what’s going on. And that’s when Ricky said he was getting a lot of death threats.
LEE: It’s all our Native people pounding us. That’s sad.
PUTSCH: And I said, “How many others have been getting death threats?” Because I had been hearing the same thing from other people, other families. I kept reading more and more about these families where the kids are getting threats. They’re afraid to let their kids out. And I got almost to that point too.
LEE: My one friend, he has three young sons—someone got ahold of his phone number and called him up, and they said “We know where you live, you sold out, we’re going to get you.” It got to the point where he was afraid to take his sons to football practice. And there was another lady here, she has two twin boys, and they were getting threats at school. People knew they were going to be in the film, because you know, you have to take them out of school.
GATES: What’s really kind of dismaying to me is that the reaction I’ve seen mimics what we see in America these days in general. When people have disagreements—whether it’s in Congress or at work—it’s that instead of agreeing to disagree, people really have to vilify the other person. And turn it into this huge evil dichotomy. I don’t think it does people, Native people especially, any good when we have this really hateful speech going around.
GURULE: I was called Uncle Tom—by Natives, and even by a white guy. I don’t care, I’m used to it. This is what I want to get at: There’s a lot of racism directed toward Natives themselves in the Native American culture. I think this comes from a lot of self-loathing, this hopeless despair of the welfare mentality that’s gone on for about seven generations now. This internalized oppression, where they oppress each other and themselves. And this is rearing its ugly head, and that’s why they’re not able to rise above it. And this is just a little distraction. All this incident about the feathers, and Beaver Breath—it’s a distraction from the real issues that troubles Native American culture.
PUTSCH: Most of the threats were on Facebook or by e-mail. On Facebook, you know, some of these families, it was their kids’ first time doing a movie, and they were excited, and they were posting pictures to Facebook. Pictures with actors in the film. And then after all this happens, the people who posted pictures are the ones who get threats.
WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
PUTSCH: I’d like to see a personal apology from everyone. Not just Adam himself or the production company, but also from the ones who walked out. Because they also affected the lives of innocent people, and I don’t think they really realized that.
GURULE: Saginaw Grant made a very wise statement about loving each other, and not hating on each other, and helping each other rise, all of us into the brotherhood of mankind. It’s a very hopeful thought, and maybe it’s romantic but that’s my position.
LEE: It’s great that all these issues came to the forefront. But at the same time, we’ve got to find a way to address them before they get on paper. You have to address it to the Screen Actors Guild. But we also have to be careful—you don’t also want to get into a spot where Hollywood says, “Ok, we’re only going to hire Native people to play Native people.” Because the effect of that is, “You’re Native, so you’re only going to play in an 1800s movie, and you’re only going to be in buckskins.” Because actors, whether you’re Hispanic, black, white—you want to be able to play anybody, from any era.
GATES: I’ve been told that local New Mexico casting companies will not cast Native people, almost 100% of the time, unless we’re cast as 19th-century characters. And that’s just not right. I’ve worked as an attorney and I’ve worked in higher education both at the undergraduate and the graduate level for the past 17 years, I could play those roles easily. As could many of my colleagues who were out there.
LEE: So one good thing that’s come out of this is that it’s brought a lot of those issues to the forefront. Things that had been brewing in the pot for too long, and then all of a sudden this issue came up, and everybody jumped on it. Which is understandable. What isn’t understandable is how those emotions turned into aggression toward the 150 people who stayed and worked.
GATES: The movie industry provides a lot of opportunity for employment. I agree with the people who walked out and other people whose opinions I’ve read that Hollywood has been doing these stereotypes for over a century now. And I don’t think as Native people we can expect Hollywood to change. But one point I’d like to get across is that I do think that the New Mexico Film Office needs to look at the ways that it might be able to help and support Native screenwriters, actors, directors, camera people—all of us who are engaged in this industry. I believe that New Mexico Film Office really owes a certain duty to Native people because of the attraction that we represent for these companies to come in. To try to be supportive of our stories and let us tell our stories the way that we can. I think that Adam Sandler, with his company, could assist in that, in some small way, by perhaps providing internship opportunities, or grants, or scripts, storylines, screenplays—there’s a lot that New Mexico and the private movie industry can to do address the problem about stereotypes. And we can’t rely on Hollywood to do it.
LEE: The producers, everybody involved in this film, Adam Sandler himself, they treated people very kindly, honest to god. Or all those 150 people wouldn’t be there, including all the grandmas and grandpas. And the moms and dads, they wouldn’t have kept their kids on the set if they thought it was vulgar or distasteful. Why would any of us have been a part of that?