Friday, February 11, 2011
"The Only Good Indian"
“The only good Indian is a dead Indian.”
–Gen. Philip Sheridan
This is going to be a rave review, so I should state from the outset that I know some of the filmmakers involved. The director, Kevin Willmott, taught a few film classes I took as a grad student at the University of Kansas. And the cinematographers, Matthew Jacobson and Jeremy Osbern, appeared on a radio show I used to host for KJHK-90.7 FM, which is only the greatest college radio station in the world.
At KU, Willmott teaches History of African-American Images in Film. His students learn the five major black stereotypes: the coon, the mulatto, the mammy, the tom and the buck. Taking the class is an eye-opening experience to say the least. The same could be said of Willmott’s new film, The Only Good Indian. It’s a terrific American Western, offering an unapologetically clear-eyed view of history and featuring very powerful performances.
Willmott has said he wanted to make the anti-Searchers. Appropriately enough, his film opens and closes with a shot lifted from John Ford’s 1956 masterpiece, showing a silhouetted figure through a doorway and framed against a background of endless prairie. The Only Good Indian and The Searchers tell similar stories, with a key difference: the roles of victim and aggressor have been reversed. In Willmott’s film, an Indian youth is kidnapped from his family by white Christians, and the boy’s quest to return home forms the basis of the story. The movie also brings to mind the 2002 Australian film Rabbit-Proof Fence, in which three Aboriginal girls are plucked from their homes.
In a remarkable screen debut, Winter Fox Frank stars as Charlie, a member of the Kansas Kickapoo Tribe who is abducted from his home and put on a train to Lawrence. There, he’s forced to attend a boarding school for Native American children. He’s prohibited from using his native language and made to dress like whites and say Christian prayers.
Charlie has no intention of giving up his heritage without a fight, so he’s subjected to daily beatings and made to eat soap for refusing to speak English. He manages to escape this terrifying ordeal, but not before snatching a copy of Bram Stoker’s Dracula off a shelf. Reading about Europeans “without heart or conscience, preying on the souls of those we love best,” Charlie naturally assumes his oppressors must be vampires.
The film co-stars Wes Studi (The Last of the Mohicans, Avatar) in the role of a lifetime. He plays Sam Franklin, a bounty hunter who captures Charlie and attempts to return him to the school. An assimilated Cherokee, Sam is the film’s most complex character. (A close second is Sheriff Henry McCoy, a veteran of the Indian wars who considers the schools even “crueler than anything I ever done.” He's played by J. Kenneth Campbell.)
In a very moving scene, Sam reveals how he’s rationalized the decimation of his people when he tells Charlie, “Their god is stronger than ours. And it’s just meant for them. It’s written in their book. They keep comin’ and comin’ and comin’ and they don’t stop until they get what they want. THAT’S the white man.” There’s a lot of humor in this role, too, which Studi plays beautifully. Sam wants to join the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, and plans to “out-white man the goddamn white man.”
Filmed in part at the Old Cowtown Museum of Wichita, the movie is an impressive recreation of the period. Willmott has said one of his goals as a filmmaker is to “stay Kansas,” and here he’s found a way to do that without compromising the material. CSA: The Confederate States of America, his other great revisionist movie, is a mockumentary in which the South wins the Civil War. He’s the rare independent filmmaker who has something to say, and I for one hope he’ll continue opening eyes inside and outside of the classroom.
The Only Good Indian is available to watch instantly on Netflix.