James Redford, son of Hollywood legend Robert Redford, was one of the producers of Mann v. Ford, a documentary chronicling the long environmental battle between the Ford Motor Company, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Ramapough Lenape Indian Nation. In 1983, the Ramapough homeland was declared an EPA-monitored Superfund site by the federal government. After 7,000 cubic yards and 727 tons of paint sludge and 61 drums of toxic waste was removed from the Upper Ringwood, New Jersey site from 1987 to 1990, and in 1994, the EPA delisted the site and declared it safe. In 2006, after many complaints by the Ramapough, Upper Ringwood was the first site in history re-declared a Superfund site and today the EPA admits that 80 percent of the toxins were missed in the original cleanup.
The documentary first aired on HBO on July 18, and will be available on HBO On Demand for a few weeks. Days after that premiere, Redford discussed the documentary with Indian Country Today Media Network via e-mail.
ICTMN: How did you first become interested in Native issues?
Redford: My mother is from Provo, Utah. Her Mormon ancestors pushed handcarts across the prairie to get there. She and my father used to drive us all around the Southwest in the summer, often stopping at tribal pow wows to visit friends. There was a lot of laughing, dancing, singing, joking and frybread, of course. As a kid, it was heaven.
Why did you think it was important to make this documentary?
This documentary is about environmental racism. It also shows you how the courts are the last bastion of hope for justice. Class-action suits are one of the few tools for people without a lot of means. When you hear about tort reform and the desire to get rid of class-action suits, they’re basically talking about institutionalized racism.
How did you first get interested in this subject?
I was working as a producer with Donald Axinn. We shared a real admiration and fascination for Indian country. Axinn, who passed away in the fall of 2009, genuinely cared about Native people. He helped start a scholarship at the University of Montana in Missoula for Native American law students. When he went to Montana to conduct an audit for the scholarship, he met with Raymond Cross one of the law professors there—he gave them a copy of the Torah and said “from my tribe to yours.” He charged me to find a story that no one else would have the guts to do. This was it.
But this is not over. This journey and this film have a chance for a more positive outcome because the EPA still has to clean up that site. By
providing the community a voice, I am hoping that the telling of this story will generate some better results for them. The pressure is now on the EPA to continue to try to protect their [the Ramapoughs] health. People in this country should not have to worry that the ground they are living on is killing them.
Do you have other Native projects in the pipeline?
I adapted a novel by Axinn entitled Allan, Burning. It’s a taut thriller set in the Everglades in the world of the Miccosukee tribe. I am also producing a documentary called River Red, which looks at the looming water shortage on the Colorado River. It tries to help people see that river as a living thing that is being used, developed, diverted and loved to death. We are following some Diné and Hopi folk who certainly know more than most about the value of water.
I have a fundamental desire to do these stories. I feel there is such a great injustice in Indian country that there needs to be more awareness. Indian country is coming back in a lot of ways and is here to stay. White Americans have so little awareness of it, and this documentary is just another way to chip away at this lack of awareness.
This isn’t the end of me and Indian country.