Listen Up Hollywood: It's Time To Let Native Americans Tell 'Our Own Stories In Our Own Words'
The issue of diversity in film isn't going anywhere anytime soon. Whether it's Ava DuVernay's Best Director snub for "Selma" at this year's Academy Awards, or Chris Rock dropping an essay about how entertainment is a "white industry," it shouldn't come as a surprise that the movie business can be particularly unkind to minority groups.
This was highlighted yet again in recent days, when several extras of Native American descent reportedly walked off the set of Adam Sandler's Netflix-produced Western spoof, "Ridiculous Six." They said the script was offensive, including characters named "Beaver Breath" and "No Bra" and depicting Native Americans peeing on the ground while smoking a peace pipe.
Vanilla Ice, who plays Mark Twain in the movie, told TMZ that the offensive jokes were kind of a given -- the movie is a satire.
"It’s a comedy," he said. "I don’t think anybody really had any ill feeling or any intent or anything. This movie isn't 'Dances With Wolves' — it’s a comedy. They’re not there to showcase anything about anybody — they’re just making a funny movie."
That's not a good even defense, SAG-AFTRA Native Americans Committee national chair DeLanna Studi, a Cherokee actress, told MTV News.
"One thing that people don’t realize about us, and I think it’s because of the way we’re portrayed in the media as this stoic straight faced Indian, is we have a wonderful sense of humor," Studi said. "That’s how we survived our genocide. You know, 98 percent of our population was wiped out after conquest. We got down to just 40,000 people at one point in our history and we’ve managed to come up from that and it’s through our ability to laugh and to make light of this situation.
"Humor doesn’t have to be degrading or mean...comedy at best, shines a light on the side of a problem. It breaks down those barriers between people by making us laugh together at ourselves, and in this way, it promotes healing."
Studi, who has not been on set or read the script for "Ridiculous Six," offered up movies like "Smoke Signals" and "Edge of America" as films with good depictions of actual Native American life, said that though she was disappointed that it had to come about this way, she welcomed the opportunity for a public discussion of Native American portrayal in movies.
Discussions of the situation have been circulating Twitter under the hashtag #NotYourHollywoodIndian, highlighting the rights that actors have to ask about the contents of scripts, and contact information for groups like Studi's who can provide both cultural consultation and resources for actors. The dilemma for actors of whether to turn down a job, as the extras on the "Ridiculous Six" set did, stay and try to make the movie more respectful, or to stay and participate in filming a project that they feel demeans their culture, is tough.
Studi said that it's common for minority actors to show up on set and "you are the ambassador of all things your people and you are expected to be the cultural advisor."
"A lot of people who aren’t the minority and have never been in that position don’t realize it," she said. "They are entitled to just go to set and just act and oftentimes people who are from a smaller group have to go in and not just do their part and do it well and hope they don’t end up on the cutting room floor, but they also have to educate people in the meantime and try to do it in a way that won’t get them fired or give them a bad reputation as being difficult to work with."
It's a double-edged sword. Stand up for yourself, or potentially earn a bad reputation?
Studi said that to make progress in how Native Americans are represented on-screen, Native actors and filmmakers need to take matters into their own hands. Any film with a Native American in it, she said, is a Native film.
"I think that ever actor's goal who has ever been a minority actor is that we want to be able to play Romeo or Juliet. You know, we want to people able to go in and just in the sheer fact that you are hiring a Native person makes the content Native -- you don’t have to tweak it to make it Native.
"Most of us exist in the modern day world and when we go out on the streets people may have an idea of who we are or they may not, the truth is we are human beings and we want to play authentic human beings on screen. Unfortunately, when you have non-Native people who do not do their research and write these roles for our people they are not capturing the complexity of that spirit, that humanity, so we often get these one-dimensional characters. We don’t want that. For me, progress is telling our own stories in our own words. Telling our stories the way they are meant to be told."
For example, Studi said she'd love to see an update of the Cherokee Rabbit myths. In Cherokee culture, Rabbit is a trickster. In stories passed down, Rabbit collects a bow and arrow, which eventually updated to a musket or a rifle. "I would love to hear stories about Rabbit with an iPhone," Studi said.
"I would love to hear the evolution of our stories, because at the time of the forced removals and the time of assimilation our stories stopped evolving," she said. "I want to encourage our youth to pick up where that left off and start creating new stories for our future generations so that we will always have stories to tell."
Plus, Studi said, it's important for Native actors to keep vying for mainstream parts. Why not help audiences update their view of Native Americans and realize there's more to life than period pieces?
"I would love as a Native actress to be able to go out and audition for the lead in a superhero film, I would love to be able to go out and audition for the lead in a crime drama that is just about a woman who is taking charge," she said. "Most of our people are matrilineal and women have the power, and when Hollywood decides to do pieces about our Native women they are often being raped or murdered or they are some exotic princess. You don’t get to see us as the strong women we are today."
Though the road to improving the depiction of Native Americans in film is long, Studi said, it's important to forge forward.
"I feel for every step that we take forward we always slide three steps backwards. But we are still moving forward, and it is still an uphill battle. I will probably never see a Native woman play a lead role in the next crime drama, but maybe my nephews will. It is something that I am going to keep striving for."