Last year, I found myself taking a film studies course which focused on indigenous people’s role in film. I had no idea what to expect as this was a topic I had never truly thought about before. Storytelling plays a major role in indigenous culture as a very personal and simple vehicle of truth and ancestry, yet throughout the rise of the film industry, indigenous people have been represented in false stereotypes to meet western culture.
If you are unable to take a film course such as this, I highly recommend viewing the film Reel Injun. This documentary was the first film we viewed in class. The filmmaker, Neil Diamond (not the singer), takes the audience on a journey which shows the growth of the American movie industry’s obsession with the “Hollywood Indian,” all the while showing the false portrayal of Indigenous Americans within the last century of film. The documentary goes further to explain how this false representation has modeled the view of indigenous cultures for western culture.
The film does an excellent job of balancing indigenous film stars, critics, historians and activists through interviews and past film clips. It takes the audience on an eye-opening journey throughout the century explaining the history of film as having a strong tie to exploiting indigenous cultures.
This documentary exemplifies the importance of storytelling, as well as stressing the significance of keeping one’s culture preserved with proper representation. Throughout the film, the audience recognizes the skewed perspective it is given through Hollywood’s representation of the “American Indian.” This displays the differences in societies and cultures and shows why certain stereotypes still continue to exist today.
When it comes to storytelling, every society has its own politics of truth. Stories should be understood according to the ideologies from which they originated, and cultures should be represented through their own identities, not through the misconceptions of others.
Reel Injun shows that in early movies, racial stereotypes were extremely prevalent. Today, Hollywood still practices cultural appropriation. White actors play the roles of indigenous people and very few object—or even notice. I believe that documentaries like Reel Injun should be viewed, taught and discussed in every documentary film course. It is important for the future of the film industry to know the influence of its work–especially in respects to other cultures. We are at an interesting time in the evolution of media and it is important more so now than ever that we learn from our past mistakes and make sure all voices are heard and represented.