by Courtney Bristow*
The 2015 film, directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu and starring Leonardo DiCaprio, received critical acclaim for its cinematography and direction, and performances, primarily that of DiCaprio and co-star Tom Hardy. The film won three of the twelves categories it was nominated for at the Academy Awards,[i] and it certainly is a praiseworthy film. The stunning visuals alone make it a film worth watching. One aspect of the film that has captured the attention of viewers and critics alike is the involvement and portrayal of Native Americans in the film. It has divided opinion on the issue; some arguing that the film has made great strides for the inclusion and accurate portrayal of Native Americans in cinema, while others have argued all it does is perpetuate the ‘White Saviour’ narrative.
Hollywood has a rather poor track record when it comes to the accurate portrayal of Native Americans in cinema. Many times these films did not involve Native Americans in the writing and design process, and often the Indigenous characters were not even played by Native American actors[ii], one recent example of this being Johnny Depp’s portrayal of Native American character Tonto in The Lone Ranger (2013). It is on this point that many argue The Revenant has made great strides. It was apparent from the start that director Iñárritu wished to represent the Native Americans as authentically as possible, starting by casting Native American actors Forrest Goodluck, Duane Howard, Melaw Nakehk’o and Arthur Redcloud to play the members of the Pawnee and Arikara tribes, and many Indigenous people served as extras throughout the film.[iii] Furthermore, the producers hired Craig Falcon, a cultural education consultant, to be the films cultural advisor.[iv] Under his guidance, the costumes, sets and script were altered to produce a film that remained authentic to the people they were attempting to represent.[v] Falcon assisted DiCaprio and Hardy with learning the Arikara language,[vi] and in post-production, two linguists from Indiana University were called in to help make the language in the film as genuine as possible.[vii] This effort has received a lot of praise and acknowledgement from the Indigenous communities. Loren Yellow Bird Sr. is an Arikara language expert who acted as a language consultant for the film and has said that the film has generated huge interested in the Arikara language and culture, “Leonardo and Alejandro, have allowed our history, culture and language to be seen by the world. [Now it is] our people who will need to forge ahead and continue this work for future generations.”[viii]
Throughout the 20th century, films are littered with crude stereotypes of Native Americans, painting them as violent savages, or exoticising the lone, peaceful shaman.[ix] One very common narrative is that of the White Protagonist rescuing and re-education Native Americans in the face of a more blatantly racist villain whose plans involve the genocide of the native tribe.[x] It has been argued by some critics that The Revenant continues to play into this narrative, using Native Americans as mere plot devices, rather than actually giving voice to their stories.[xi] Based upon the true – although potentially embellished – story of Hugh Glass, American Frontiersman; The Revenant explores his dramatic quest of survival and revenge against the man that murdered his half-Pawnee son, and left him for dead. Except that the real Hugh Glass, as far as history is aware, never married a Pawnee woman and never had the son, on whom the premise of the film is based.[xii] Additionally, the sub-plot that revolves around the leader of the Arikara and his pursuit of the Trappers that have taken his daughter, is also taken from fiction. What appears to be an inclusive tale at first glance is in fact embellishment for the sake of humanising the protagonist and driving the plot forward. The film fails to escape the ‘White Saviour’ narrative.[xiii] In the creation of Glass as a character, he’s progressive – he has a Pawnee wife and son, he speaks their language. He’s the embodiment of the ‘good’ coloniser. When he comes across the group of French trappers who have kidnap the daughter of the Arikara Chieftain, it is he that rescues her and helps her to escape, reinforcing his ‘goodness’ while never giving screen time to the girl and her story. Arguably that’s because it’s not her story, it’s Glass’. However, given that this event never took place in the historical account, it is for the viewers to question why this subplot was so important to the director and what it is he was trying to demonstrate.
The one moment that comes close to giving voice the Indigenous peoples comes from actor Duane Howard in the character of Elk-Dog. As he attempts to negotiate with a group of French Trappers, he says, “You all have stolen everything from us. Everything! The land. The animals.” However, this is never revisited, never examined or expanded on, and the opportunity to shed further light on this theme is lost. Much like Glass himself, in the films single-minded pursuit of producing an epic tale of revenge and survival, it loses sight of the Indigenous people and diminishes their role to plot devices, brutal warriors and victims. And while no historian would debate that the Native Americans were both fearsome fighters and victims of colonisation, failure to show them as deeper, more complex characters relegates them to continue to serves as the backdrop to which the brave America frontiersman can be the hero.[xiv]
Debate was further sparked by DiCaprio’s acceptance speech for Best Actor at the Golden Globes. The actor acknowledged the First Nations people, saying “I want to share this award with all the First Nations people represented in this film and all the indigenous communities around the world. It is time we recognize your history and protect your indigenous lands from corporate interests and people who are out there to exploit them.”[xv] Many people applauded the acknowledgement, with Native American members of the cast saying, “That was an awesome experience to have Leonardo DiCaprio acknowledge us for his Golden Globe-winning award”,[xvi] and Duane Howard saying he “got choked up” by the gesture.[xvii] However, others have argued that his speech was the “bare minimum” and that without action behind it, those words only serve to reinforce the narrative that Native Americans require white people to speak on their behalf. [xviii]
Ultimately, The Revenant is a stunningly produced and acted film, that takes great care to accurately portray indigenous culture with sensitivity and attention to detail. This effort has clearly been noted by Native Americans, and Indigenous people in the industry, and marks a step forward inclusivity for Hollywood. However, what The Revenant does not escape is the classic ‘White Saviour’ narrative that continues to restrict the authenticity of the stories and voices of Native Americans.
*Courtney Bristow is a student at the University of Adelaide, Australia. Interested in environmental law and the struggle of indigenous peoples, as well as international relations and relations related to environmental policy. Now, she is doing internship at Huma office, Jakarta.