Hollywood has many problems, and now, thanks to the internet, they can know exactly what they are. They haven’t had the best relations with gender or cultural representations, and especially race relations. Like the Hollywood system, I tend to get stuck in some old ways too. For example, this past October 12th, while the schools and post offices were closed in my neighborhood, I finally figured out it was because of “Columbus Day.” It wasn’t until I exclaimed this to my colleagues where I was corrected, “Oh, you mean Indigenous People’s Day?” From then on, I was enlightened.
Now, in this mid-way point between the day formerly known as “Columbus Day” and Thanksgiving, here are some films about Indigenous people that we should stop celebrating:
Indiana Jones & The Temple of Doom (1984)
Playing this movie in the background of a family gathering was and is a treasured memory. I still love the goofy adventure aspect of the film, and how tactile and fluid the story is. However, if you Google search “Indiana Jones Racist”, there is no shortage of articles and essays dissecting the film. There is something particularly demeaning and uncomfortable about that infamous dinner scene. In the sequence where Indy and co. are in the palace being served a lavish dinner of eyeball soup, chilled monkey brain, and the thing responsible for many of my irrational fears: the Snake Surprise. Here, Spielberg is able to craft a visually tense scene with dialogue and story, and juxtapose it right next to some blatant racism. Set in what was understood to be India, despite the actors in formal attire, the men who appear to be dignitaries of some sort snarf and hork down food that is, disturbing, gross, and definitely not Indian. If you can keep your attention on the dialogue, you’ll feel the tension and hostility that the British dignitary and Indy are projecting to their Indian hosts. Yes, they’re talking about colonialism over the slurp of live snakes.
In my recent re-watch of Disney’s Pocahontas, I was thinking “this isn’t so bad!” All of the white characters seem to know what they’re doing is wrong. They are referring to the natives as Savages, and they mean it, in a completely derogatory way. Even the scrawny right-hand-yes-man says it clear as day:
“Wiggins, why do you think those insolent heathens attacked us?”
“Because we invaded their land and cut down their trees and dug up their earth?”
Everyone knows what’s going on! For some reason, the film’s self-awareness put me at ease. It wasn’t until Disney’s stylistic flair gave the Native Americans magical powers of knowing all the information about the strange white men through their mystic smoke. Why all of a sudden do the Native Americans have powers? Why don’t the white men have any mythical clairvoyance? Was John Smith’s fetishism of Pocahontas the only thing that saved her from him shooting her? Pocahontas is celebrated for being a badass “princess”, but that alone can’t solve all the problems this movie has.
Peter Pan (1953)
Just for the song “What Makes The Red Man Red”. Which I completely forgot was in the movie! Seriously? This made it to a beloved Disney Classic? There are all kinds of issues in this sequence: the stereotyping, the characterization of Native Americans, Red Face, etc., etc. There’s even a schtick where Wendy is repeatedly told “Squaw, go get firewood!” Sexist, racist, check and check. Yes, J.M. Barrie wrote the story over 100 years ago, and using a Native American-type culture in a fictional world wasn’t an issue, but even in the 2015 prequel, Pan, Tiger Lily is played by Rooney Mara, and was part of a petition to get her replaced. There is definitely creative interpretation in films, and the Indians in Peter Pan were not supposed to be Native Americans, but this to me feels like another excuse to squeeze racism into characters, even if it is a product of the a time period.
Green Inferno (2015)
If you are a fan of Eli Roth, you like this film. It has an entertaining old-school horror vibe, with some great characters that you know are going to die gruesomely, and you don’t like them enough to mind. However, if you’re not distracted/satisfied with the adventure or the gore, you are paying attention to the xenophobia, and even some fat phobia happening in this film. A short synopsis: A group of student activists travel to the Amazon to protest a logging company, while on their way home, their plane crashes, and they are lost among the indigenous people. Spoiler alert: they’re cannibals. Another Spoiler Alert: It seems to be a thing Like here, here and *eye roll*
Here is where that suspension of disbelief leads most to believe that it’s okay to keep portraying native people this way because, it’s so far-fetched and farcical. Where do the excuses stop?
My favorite part about a film is where it leaves you after your finished watching it. They’re transformative, and not to mention entertaining. Now that we can give immediate feedback from all different backgrounds and perceptions, we can see how a film transforms all viewers, and most importantly, revisit and reevaluate movies we’ve once celebrated. Leaving us more open and educated to revamping the Hollywood system, taking it back for the people. All the people.