Aiming to be a shaggier, road-movie equivalent of Martin Scorsese’s “personal histories” of national cinemas, Cree filmmaker Neil Diamond’s Reel Injun eschews a pure clips-and-scholars approach to the annals of Native American images in narrative film for one that mixes in the alchemy of real-life activism, education, and the construction of racial identity. Narrating and frequently on screen with his interviewees, Diamond sets out in a junker “res(ervation) car” from his Canadian community for the Great Plains, home to Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull, and the tourist shops nestled in John Ford’s emblematic Monument Valley location. Along with further stops in the Black Hills, and a Quebec kids’ “tribal” camp where the clichéd war whoops and body paint leave Diamond chagrined, archival excerpts demonstrate how movie artists, great and bad, stereotyped and distorted the native peoples as either über-warrior “noble savages,” the dominant image of the silents and early ’30s, to the barbarous-Injun caricature that took hold with Ford’s 1939 touchstone Stagecoach.
How these projected images struck aboriginal spectators, particularly children, is explored through the reminiscences of political leaders like Russell Means (recalling weekly boyhood fights after white kids spotted him at the Saturday western matinee) and Diamond’s screening of the revisionist Little Big Man for Crow schoolchildren, who are unsurprisingly mute and petrified at scenes of cavalry slaughtering natives. The doc casts too wide a net for its 80-plus minutes, finding time to include the ethnic paradox of Iron Eyes Cody—the “Keep America Beautiful” crying-Indian icon who didn’t let his Sicilian parentage keep him from living as an indigenous man—to the gung-ho Hollywood bravura of stunt rider and trainer Rod Rondeaux.
The debate over the evolution of the movies’ depiction of native peoples is not always on the mark; while Dances with Wolves is a source of disagreement, no voices note the The Searchers’s ambivalent presentation of John Wayne’s racist killer. Reel Injun’s concluding celebration of Zacharias Kunuk’s Atanarjuat as an authentic “inside job” seems like a preordained ending, but the film has force in former American Indian Movement head John Trudell’s reiteration of a phrase introduced to the movie-going mainstream in Little Big Man: “We’re the Human Beings.”