Sunday, July 29, 2018

Woman Walks Ahead, A Film Review

"This does not look like Standing Rock," he said. "...Standing Rock is supposed to look like New Mexico...," she replied.
Woman Walks Ahead, A Film Review
Can One Scene Redeem A Movie?
By Dakota Wind
Woman Walks Ahead. Directed by Susanna White. Produced by Edward Zwick, Marshall Herskovitz, Erika Olde, Rick Solomon, and Andrea Calderwood. Written by Steven Knight. Music by George Fenton. Starring Jessica Chastain, Michael Greyeyes, Chaske Spencer, Sam Rockwell, and others. U.S.A. & U.K.: Black Bicycle Entertainment, Bedford Falls Productions, and Potboiler Productions. June 29, 2018. Film. 101 Minutes.

Some films are beautifully crafted narratives based on real-life people or circumstances. Others struggle in their telling to make a story bigger than it was. Still more only have one redeeming quality to them. Woman Walks Ahead has one powerful message in a beautifully constructed scene that contains a minimal presence of the film’s female protagonist.

Before the film began, I was milling around in the atrium of the Grand Theater, a locally owned theater in Bismarck, ND, with an old friend talking about life and church. We got there about half an hour early to get good seats. About fifteen minutes into our wait, a young native man comes up to me and shakes my hand. I introduce myself in Lakȟóta and ask him his name. Lo, he offers a confident reply and we exchange pleasantries. A quiet opened around us as we engaged in our language. I told him that I’m not a fluent speaker and that he spoke very well. He nodded his head before rejoining his mother. They went on to see “Deadpool 2.”

Sam Rockwell, pictured above, as Col. Groves on a mission to justify killing Indians and redeem himself, but can't escape white male paternalism, plays a perfect guilty asshole who hasn't slept since the Killdeer fight of 1863. His Lakhota is alright too. 

I knew I wasn’t going to see a historically accurate film. There are plenty of articles drifting in the internet atmosphere challenging the artistry of Susanna White and a rambling self-serving narrative by Steven Knight that pretty much cover my concerns, but I have one overwhelming question.

Why film the movie in New Mexico? There are a few shots where the landscape might pass for Standing Rock, but anyone who has made the pilgrimage to Sitting Bull’s camp knows the rolling hills and sinuous banks of the Grand River are shaded overwhelmingly by cottonwood. The story is as removed from historical fact as it is in location.

New Mexico and its mountains are beautiful, but a beautiful mountain sunset in the southwest is not the same on the vast open prairie steppe. The prairie features unique flat-topped plateaus, an open sky with bright sunlight unhindered only by passing clouds, and a constant wind that has been here since creation. Thítȟuŋwaŋ, or Teton, means “They Who Dwell On The Plains.” White removed the people from the land that made them.

Susanna White (above) goes for emotional truth, not historical truth. The emotional truth that existed between Sitting Bull and Weldon simply did not exist.

Agent McLaughlin (pronounced mick-LOFF-lin by the community and by the Major’s descendants) would have been better served by perpetual cowboy Sam Elliot, at least he’s got the mustache for it. Knight didn’t know whether to write the Major as an apologist or paternalist, and it shows. McLaughlin learned Dakhota from his wife; Hinds’s Major is as confused about hearing Lakhota as Knight’s apparent research about the time and setting of the actual story, and neither should be.

Sam Rockwell’s Colonel Silas Groves is the perfect asshole whose arc represents something of a mix between white guilt and white redemption. Groves tells Chastain’s Weldon of the Indian depredation as justification for the country’s punitive campaign against the red man, and just barely touches on the exchange of escalating violence on the frontier (the 1863 Killdeer Mountain conflict is mentioned in which Sitting Bull mentions seeing Groves there, who was on campaign against the Lakhota who had nothing to do with the events in Minnesota, but for Groves, an Indian is an Indian).

Where's the snow that Knight's script mentioned in Sitting Bull's recollecton? It was not snowing, as it was the middle of summer. 

The 1863 Killdeer Mountain conflict took place in late July, the Moon of Ripe Chokecherries, making it nigh improbable that there was snowfall, and though it could snow in July, there is none mentioned at all in the oral tradition. Maybe in England it snows in July, but not on the Great Plains, but snowfall, even in retrospect in a rambling narrative makes for good telling.

There is a lot to deconstruct and inquire about this film, but it has one powerful redeeming scene. Agent McLaughlin sat with his wife/translator and General George Crook to hear testimony about whether the tribe should sign the Dawes Treaty, which in fact was not a treaty but a congressional act, to break up the Great Sioux Nation into small reservations. These smaller reservations were originally part of official US Indian policy called “concentration,” and were prison camps, the legacy of which enrolled members of federally recognized tribes are assigned enrollment numbers (prison numbers in the concentration policy days).

Sitting Bull, played by Michael Greyeyes (Plains Cree), delivers a powerful oratory about Makȟóčhe (Grandmother Earth) and how the Lakȟóta cannot sell it, “not even this much,” he said as he reached down for a handful of earth and held it before the agent. Some films redeem themselves with the perfect music, others with cinematography. This moment is this film's redemption. 

Stone Man's pictographic testimony of the conflict at Sitting Bull's camp the morning he was killed on the Grand River. Soldiers' guns and cannon fired onto Spotted Elk's (Big Foot's) band of Mnikowozu as they fled. 

The film concludes with the arrest and death of Sitting Bull. Artistic licensing aside, there was just too much missing for me to appreciate this scene as the director intended (a dramatic close up of Welden in the snow in distress over the loss of Sitting Bull). There was a conflict there between the police and the people camped there at Sitting Bull’s home. Soldiers stood atop the bluff of the south bank of the Grand River and fired gun and shell at the camp. Sitting Bull’s death was not by a sniper, but by BIA police officer Bull Head after he was shot; Bull Head shot Sitting Bull twice, once in the side, then in the head.

Sitting Bull was shot and killed by the BIA Indian Police up close, not by sniper. 

Welden’s painting is on display at the ND State Heritage Center and Museum, torn by one of the BIA police officers, but it is not the same as the painting as depicted in Woman Walks Ahead. Sitting Bull was painted “old” because he was old.

Weldon's painting of Sitting Bull on display at the ND Heritage Center and State Museum. The tear in the painting came from one of the BIA police officers. 

There was no romantic love between Sitting Bull and Weldon, but she did things for him that were expected of wives while she lived there: cooked and fed him, chopped wood, and tended his fire. I remember hearing that Sitting Bull asked her just to be his wife since she was doing the things wives do, but there was no romantic attachment. The on-screen chemistry between Weldon and Sitting Bull is chaste and distant, but the introduction of that chemistry is introduced by White and Knight.

See the movie, then visit the North Dakota Heritage Center and Museum to see the real Weldon painting. Adjacent to Weldon’s painting is Stone Man’s pictographic testimony of the conflict that ensued as Sitting Bull was arrested. Both images are worth taking in. 




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