Reel Injun Directed by: Neil Diamond, Catherine Bainbridge, Jeremiah Hayes Cast: Neil Diamond, Russell Means, Jim Jarmusch Running Time: 1 hr 30 min Rating: Unrated Release Date: November 19, 2010 (limited)
PLOT: Filmmaker Neil Diamond looks at the history of Native Americans in cinema and how it's affected the people as well as perceptions of their history.
WHO'S IT FOR? Fans of film scholarship and Native American studies. Though it can be an amateur interest, it's pretty entertaining.
EXPECTATIONS: The name gives a pretty good idea of what you're going to get.
Neil Diamond as himself: He seldom appears on screen but narrates and gives form to this story of Native Americans in cinema. He structures the story around his own experiences as a child watching movies where cowboys were the heroes and Indians, the villains. That said, the story about him driving back and forth across the country to trace the evolution of Natives in cinema doesn't really work. But hey, he does a good job directing. Score: 6
Russell Means as himself: Native author and advocate, Means tells the most poignant story in the film. He describes seeing Western movies at a theater with his brother as a child and then getting into a fight with the white kids afterwards on the sidewalk outside. Score: 7
Jim Jarmusch as himself: I never really thought of him as a Western filmmaker, but I guess Dead Man qualifies. He has some interesting thoughts about Natives on film, I don't really think of him as a film historian, but he's pretty interesting. Score: 6
TALKING: For talking heads who are speaking off the cuff, they sound great. It probably helps that many of them are authors. The narration isn't quite as good though. It comes together more in the second half of the film. Score: 6
SIGHTS: The scenes from various films are well chosen and fit together great. I really want to look into some of the films they show, like Billy Jack and Little Big Man. Yes, there are gaps in my film eduction, especially when it comes to American kung-fu movies. Don't tell Chuck Norris. Score: 7
SOUNDS: The talking heads sound good, but don't expect a lot of music outside of the cliched tom toms from old westerns. Score: 6
BEST SCENE: I mentioned it earlier, but I liked the scene with Russell Means describing his experiences seeing Westerns when he was a kid. There's also a good segment at the end where The Fast Runner is discussed. It made me want to rewatch that film.
ENDING: The future is wide open, but the filmmakers are hopeful that Native films and filmmaking are more accurate, less racist than they've been since the dawn of cinema and will continue in that direction. Hopefully they're right.
QUESTIONS: Where do the Twilight films fit in in all this? It's silly, but I'd like to know how the filmmakers felt about this, especially since actor Taylor Lautner isn't Native American.
REWATCHABILITY: I'd be more likely to show it to someone else than rewatch it myself.
Despite cinema's very spotty record with Native Americans in film, Reel Injun is an entertaining, not bitter look at it's subject. The filmmakers find lots of ways to look at cinema that don't just focus on the negative. Diamond and company look at lots of Hollywood films, especially Westerns, but also dramas like One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest and Little Big Man. He talks to a Navajo couple who were extras in the some Westerns and has them translate what the native actors in the film were really saying, which is better than the actual dialogue. They also look at events like Sacheen Littlefeather's infamous non-acceptance of Brando's Oscar, putting it in it's proper historical context. She speaks about it and it's the first time I've heard her side of the story. I didn't know that the standoff at Wounded Knee was going on at the same time.
Reel Injun isn't the best documentary I've seen this year, but it does tell a solid and interesting story about how Native Americans have shaped their history and how Americans view the Natives based on Hollywood's interpretation, no matter how inaccurate. If you have five bucks, take a trip to the Hollywood this weekend. I guarantee the lines will be shorter than those for Harry Potter.
FINAL SCORE: 7/10