Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Why Hollywood Is Not The Place To Learn About Native Americans

Photo Credit: Paco Lyptic
Whenever I talk with others about doing cross-cultural ministry, one of the points that I emphasize time and time again is that building deep friendships with those from different cultural backgrounds than our own is the most effective way to learn about another culture.

As a missionary that has served in cross-cultural environments for most of my adult life, I view myself as a lifelong learner of people. In addition to building solid friendships with those from ethnic backgrounds different than my own, I am also intentional about pursuing resources that can help me learn from the experiences and the stories of members of the ethnic communities that I am learning about.

The types of resources that I often pursue are books, subscribing to blogs, digesting any newspaper or online articles that I can that speak to race and culture, watching films & documentaries and being exposed to music that is popular to specific ethnic communities. Even though many of these resources can be helpful, they can, at times, miss the mark. So is the case with the traditional portrayals of Native Americans in Hollywood movies.

Reel Injun, a riveting documentary that examines how First Nations peoples have been depicted throughout the history of Hollywood, sheds light on the failure of filmmakers to offer an accurate picture of those the movies commonly refer to as "Indians." Documentarian Neil Diamond (no, not the singer...this one, a member of the Cree tribe) interviews such notables as Clint Eastwood, Adam Beach and Russell Means in order to uncover the unfair stereotypes that have typically accompanied the over 4,000 Hollywood produced films that have attempted to tell the Native American story.  Most movies featuring a Native storyline have been written by non-Native people, often featuring white actors who wore makeup and outfits to appear as Indians. It might be funny if it wasn't so sad.

What is sad is that for many Americans, the primary source for information about Native Americans is Hollywood films. So when the bulk of these movies lean towards negative stereotypical portrayals and inaccurate historical re-enactments, most Americans simply do not have a fair view of First Nations peoples. It is why personal friendships are so important. If all I knew about Native Americans is what I saw in the movies, I would have no other option than to subscribe to cliched stereotypes and outdated depictions.

Photo Credit: Wikipedia
One of the most telling stories that Reel Injun tells is of Iron Eyes Cody, an American actor that was featured in a number of films throughout the 20th Century. If you're of my generation or older, however, you'll most likely remember Cody as the Native American who sheds a single tear over the increase in littering during the "Keep America Beautiful" ad campaign that ran during the 1970's. I remember this iconic image years later even though I was just a young boy when these commercials aired.

But in recent years, it was discovered that Cody, who passed away in 1999, was not even Native American. Though he had claimed to be of Cherokee-Cree descent, Cody was actually of Italian heritage. Cody lived nearly his whole life pretending to be someone he was not. It does not mean that his efforts to help the causes of indigenous people were insincere or unappreciated. It just means that the image that he gave of himself was not truthful. Sadly, the picture we have been given of Native Americans by Hollywood has also not been truthful.

Unfortunately, this has often been the case not only with Native Americans, but also with those of other ethnic minorities communities when it comes to how these people groups have been represented by Hollywood.  Often relying on caricatures and majority culture perceptions, we simply can't trust most Hollywood films to give complete and fair representations of traditionally marginalized ethnic groups.

If you want to utilize film to learn about a particular ethnic group, please seek to watch movies that were made by and star actors that are actually from that community. But even better than that is to seek to build friendships with members of that group. I've found that it is fundamentally impossible to subscribe to sweeping generalizations about a group of people when I've actually gotten to know people from that community. When you've sat with people, spent time with their families in their homes and listened to their stories, you can't help but grow in your appreciation and love for them.

All people, no matter what their ethnicity, are made in the image of God and are, therefore, image bearers of God. We get a small glimpse into what God is like when we look into the soul of another human being and appreciate them as another image bearer of our Creator. This is a simple reminder of the words of Jesus that we are to love our neighbor as we love ourselves.

If you would like to view the documentary Reel Injun and you are a Netflix member, the movie is currently available for live streaming here.


Anonymous said...

Thanks, Scott...great post! Just added "Real Injun" to my Netflix queue.

scottmcrocker said...

Thanks, Steph! You commented on the blog, re-tweeted on Twitter and shared it on Facebook. A social networking hat trick! I'm honored. :)