When I first heard of the documentary Reel Injun: On the Trail of the Hollywood Indian, I was more than a little bit excited. I’m a sucker for docs about film, especially those that examine aspects of cinematic history that are seldom discussed. So for me, the subject of how Native American Indians are portrayed in film—something I have been obsessed with and written about at length—was exactly what I’ve been waiting for. And in some ways, Reel Injunis very much what I was looking for, while in other ways it falls short of some expectations.
In what amounts to something of a personal journey, filmmaker Neil Diamond (not to be confused with the singer of the same name) sets out to find deconstruct and understand the complicated history of American Indians in motion pictures. A Native American himself, Diamond sets out on a cross-country road trip in a “rez car”—which is explained in the film—on a mission to find out how and why Indians have come to be portrayed on film the way they have. Along the way he talks to some insightful critics and historians—all of whom are interesting in their own right, but not the sort of people you want to build a documentary around. And while these talking heads really break things down, they ultimately take a backseat to the recognizable faces and names that populate Reel Injun—Clint Eastwood, Adam Beach, Wes Studi, Jim Jarmusch, Chris Eyre, John Trudell, activist Russell Means, and Sacheen Littlefeather, to name a few. No one is uninteresting, which is to say that everyone has something either informative or entertaining to share, whether it is Eastwood talking about his Outlaw Josey Wales co-star Chief Dan George, or Littlefeather explaining how she came to be the person who “accepted” Marlon Brando’s Oscar for The Godfather. And to be sure, the now nearly-forgotten moment when Brando, through Littlefeather, spoke out in support of the Natives who at the time were engaged in a stand-off with federal forces at Wounded Knee, is part of what makes Reel Injun such a compelling film. Hearing Russell Means recount what it was like at Wounded Knee, when word came in of Brando’s support and Littlefeather’s actions, delivers a unique history lesson.
At its strongest, Reel Injun is filled with moments detailing how the world of film overlaps with real life (and vice versa), and how this overlap has played out insofar as native peoples are concerned. To be sure, Native Americans have long been on the receiving end of some very bad treatment, and Hollywood is not exempt of that treatment. But at times the film falls short of really digging into how bad things were. Diamond mentions the many white actors to don redface make-up and play Indians, but when you consider that this in and of itself could be a full documentary, the cursory examination seems a bit too abbreviated. And of course, that leads to some of what isn’t even in the doc, like mention of actor Jay Silverheels, who portrayed Tonto, the Lone Ranger’s faithful sidekick/savior, or the string of Billy Jack-inspired injunsploitation films like Johnny Firecloud, or the mind-blowing Thunder Warrior series from Italy, which ripped off the Rambo movies and fused them with injunsploitation conventions.
Still, despite what is missing from Reel Injun, it is outweighed by what is in the film (including some funny observations from comedian Charlie Hill). Knowing what I know, it is easy for me to say that Reel Injun is not the end-all-be-all of docs on this subject, but at the same time, it is the only documentary I know of on this subject, which means that it must do for the time being. And to be honest, when all is said and done, it does well.