Turkey Day is also a tough holiday at the movies for a different reason. Hollywood’s history of perpetuating negative stereotypes is well-documented, and the depiction of indigenous people onscreen is among the most damaging. We’re not just talking about the classic Westerns of John Wayne and Gary Cooper, Have you hopped on Disney+ and listened to the songs about “savages” on the Pocahontas soundtrack?
If you’re looking for a more insightful take on indigenous representation at the movies, here are some recent examples for a stronger Thanksgiving watchlist.
This coming-of-age drama directed by Tracey Deer focuses on the life development of a young girl ("Beans") amid Quebec’s 1990 standoff between a Mohawk tribe and government forces. A local favorite, the film got its American debut screening at the USA Film Festival in Dallas this April.
The title suggests something more problematic, but “hostiles” refers to the never ending cycle of violence against natives on the American frontier that originated from white oppressors. Look for the great Wes Studi as the Cheyenne chief Yellow Hawk in what should have been an Oscar-nominated performance had Studi not been another victim of #OscarsSoWhite.
The New World
Turn off Pocahontas unless you want your kids growing up with a schmaltzy, “why can’t we all just get along?” version of genocide. Texas filmmaker Terrence Malick’s reimagining of the Jamestown colony in his 2005 romantic drama is a much more accurate, beautiful and insightful take on this key point in American history.
Yes, this is the film that Leo DiCaprio finally got his Oscar for, but we’re less interested in the brutal bear attacks than we are the film’s commentary on the destruction of natural land. Leo’s revenge odyssey begins when his half-Pawnee son Hawk is murdered by a cruel Tom Hardy, and he seeks the spiritual guidance of Hawk’s ancestors throughout his journey.
This modern neo-noir Western from 2017 boasts an exciting mystery at its core, but it's framed around the underreported crisis of young Native American women murdered within reservations throughout the nation. The ending title card of statistics will make your skin crawl. Look for a stunning emotional performance from the great Gil Birmingham as a grieving father. It also stars Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen.
The Last of the Mohicans
The 1936 film The Last of the Mohicans is among the worst examples of the white savior narrative in screen history, but thankfully the 1992 remake from Michael Mann took a much more respectful approach to race relations in its reworking of the classic epic novel. Russell Means gives a phenomenal performance as Chingachgook, who served as a real Oglala Lakota activist for the American Indian Movement (AIM), and it also stars the brilliant Daniel Day-Lewis.
Eternals is in theaters now and Nomadland just took home the Oscar for Best Picture, so now is a better time than ever to check out the films of Chloe Zhao. The Rider is about Brady, a young man who must refocus after an accident leaves him unable to compete in the rodeo. Zhao often uses non-actors within her films, so her depiction of the diverse community of rodeo stars at Lakota Sioux of the Pine Ridge Reservation is ensured to be authentic.
Twin Peaks: The Return
Fans will debate whether David Lynch’s masterful mystery odyssey is a film or a TV series, but either way Detective Hawk Hill (Michael Horse) is a hero for the ages. In the third season of the 1990s cult classic, Hawk is such a superior problem-solver than his white counterparts that it's borderline comical.