Documentary film Reel Injun screened at Nashville showing

By Albert Bender
Nashville, Tennessee (NFIC) November 2010

The documentary film “Reel Injun”: On The Trail of The Hollywood Indian screened in Nashville on October 30, at the downtown public library. It was sponsored by Community Cinema, Nashville Public Television, the Nashville Public Library, Hands On Nashville, the Nashville Film Festival and the Bureau of Indian Affairs and was one of 65 fall showings nationwide.

Among the objectives of the film was to expose long-standing stereotypes of Native Americans in Hollywood cinemas.

“I knew Americans were stereotyped in our society, but I didn’t know how much of those stereotypes stemmed from old Westerns or how much American Indians still face those stereotypes daily”  said Allison Inman, Nashville based ITVS  National Community Cinema  Coordinator. Inman added “Community Cinema is powerful because it opens audience members’ minds to a point of view they might not have heard otherwise. It’s gratifying to know that in cities across the country people got together to watch and discuss Reel Injun, just like we did in Nashville.”

This effort was coordinated by Community Cinema, which is a public education initiative designed to involve community members and organizations to discuss and get involved in today’s pressing social issues.

The panel for the post screening  discussion included moderator Dr. Daniel  Usner, Jr., professor of American Indian history at Vanderbilt University; Bill Miller (Mohegan), Grammy–winning recording artist, painter and public speaker; Chanda Joseph (Lakota), Bureau of Indian Affairs and JJ Kent(Lakota), recording artist, story teller and cultural educator.

The film was a thought provoking  view of Hollywood’s depiction of American Indians from the time of silent movies  to the present. Cree filmmaker, Neil Diamond, “traveled” through   time to examine how the image of Native Americans  evolved in the film industry.  Frank interviews were conducted with noted actors and activists, writers and directors including Native actors Russell Means, John Trudell. Adam Beach, Wes Studi, Graham Greene and others. The film exhibited clips from hundreds of  movies. The aim of the film was to show the stereotypes with a sometime  comic background while dispelling and analyzing them at the same time. Reel Injun also noted movies that more realistically portrayed Native characters.   

The film  followed the cinematic development of this image evolution from the earliest days to the present.  Diamond interviews, for example, movie luminary Eastwood who cites his experience both comic and serious in dealing with producers and directors who wanted to portray this country’s Native people. Examples of cowboy and Indian myths were presented to the audience for reflective consideration.   

Diamond  who is from a remote Native community, Waskaganish, in northern Quebec, recounts as a child watching westerns in the church basement on Friday night and rooting for the cowboys.  As child it didn’t occur to him that the actors playing Indians were white. But several years  ago as an adult, while watching a western, it hit him that many white actors who became “big stars”–such as Charles Bronson, Chuck Connors, Elvis Presley, Burt Lancaster-had portrayed Indians in Hollywood films. This realization started Diamond’s odyssey in making this much needed thought provoking  documentary.

The film brought out that in  the early days, Native actors in many of the films in the silent picture era were paid with tobacco and alcohol. Armed guards were kept at some filmings because it was thought that Indians would become dangerous or disorderly. Also, white actors who played  Indians were spray painted brown. In some films since white actors did not know any Indian language they were told to speak English backwards.

The film opened to an appreciative audience who viewed the screening with rapt attention, followed by a robust discussion and question and answer session.