Let’s be thankful that Native Americans let us romanticize them on the silver screen! But let’s have the grace to be ashamed of it as well!
Welcome to Susan Year Itch, a new column from movie reviewer extraordinaire, Susan Howson. When Suze isn’t gabbing about new releases, she’ll show up here on a monthly basis to school you about films in a topical fashion. As usual, always remember to note the asterisks.
It’s Thanksgiving time!
I love Thanksgiving! It’s a national holiday, so we’re all included, and it integrates well with any religion (or lack of one — you can always thank a person, after all). Plus, it taps into our American desire to eat to excess! Brilliant!*
As an added bonus, Thanksgiving involves catchy national mythology, featuring some touching interplay between Pilgrim and Indian. It tries hard to convince us that we were freely offered maize/this continent in exchange for smallpox/a romanticized portrayal once a year in November. I think at this point, most of us are uncomfortably aware of how shady a deal that was and even more uncomfortably aware of how little we can really do about it. Because of this, we’ve constructed an almost mystical reverence for the wise, proud people whom we (irreverently) shooed from their homelands and channel it into the arts whenever possible.**
Unfortunately for my conscience, all that post-colonial romanticizin’ has resulted in some Hollywood portrayals that are pretty difficult to resist, especially when you’re crammed full of mashed potatoes and unable to get out of your dad’s recliner. The following are four movies with which to indulge yourself and one that’ll help you reclaim a measure of your self-respect.
Get this one in before the kids go to bed! It’s a surprisingly enjoyable Disney animated feature in the old style that suffered much due to criticism that the history is almost 100% inaccurate (although the animals in this film don’t talk, so obviously some attempts were made to keep things realistic). Try to ignore the fact that this pretty musical doesn’t quite fit in with Disney’s usual line of dry, historical documentaries and instead focus on hearing the wolf cry at the blue corn moon.
If there’s one thing the 90s were good for it is sweeping epics. If there are two things…I don’t know what the second one is,*** but I know it’s not Kevin Costner. Nevertheless, that toneless man really put some excellent movies together, did he not? If you haven’t seen this film in awhile, it’s time to refresh your memory. Don’t pretend it’s just your mom who loves that sentimental John Barry score — you’ll have a tear in your eye as the drums play while Lieutenant Dunbar forges a relationship with Stands with a Fist. She’s not only sassy, she’s white! It’s the choice with which everyone can feel comfortable.
Rumor has it that the noble Mohicans and the rest of the Native American actors and actresses experienced less-than-favorable conditions on the set of this movie. I try and fail to make my indignation overpower the heart palpitations I experience when Daniel Day-Lewis tells Cora that he will find her. I hate being manipulated! I love this movie!
I recommend this not because it is any good but because knowing what you know now, you can use your viewing of this movie as a post-turkey game to keep your mind sharp. Give yourself points every time a white man helps a hot indigenous babe learn the ways of civilization. Give yourself extra points every time she teaches him something about the ways of nature in return. Down an entire bottle of wine every time a woman’s fate bodily passes from one male to another.
I threw this one in last in case your colonial guilt is starting to flare up beyond all reckoning and you crave some relief. One of my favorite films by one of my favorite directors and starring an actor I think about at least once a day, Dead Man will remind you that a colonist can indeed portray the colonized in a thoughtful and respectful manner. Not only that, it’s still a kickass movie that will provoke all sorts of emotions, even if no one jumps into waterfalls.
*This is an argument for another time, but Fourth of July might be better, since it taps into our American desire to drink in someone’s backyard. Also, the revolutionary ideals of the founding fathers are a whole lot more fun to celebrate than those of the Puritans. Just saying.
**For real, it’s a real thing. To read more about it, check out this article about aboriginal representation in media, and this one about the “noble savage,” and this one about Squanto, just for kicks. That guy had a rough life.
***That’s a lie. I do know what it is, and it’s Pearl Jam.