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A new crop of Westerns — long headed up by white male heroes who are handy with a gun — are distancing themselves from their predecessors’ habit of objectifying women and marginalizing Native American characters as multiple socially progressive titles arrive on the big and small screen.
This month, several stories with a distinct, historically complex take on the West are releasing at once, including Paramount Network’s Yellowstone (June 20), which casts Native actors like Gil Birmingham and Tokala Black Elk in central roles opposite Kevin Costner in a story of a reservation challenging a powerful Wyoming landowner. In theaters, Nathan and David Zellner’s offbeat comedy Damsel (June 22, limited release) subverts the damsel-in-distress narrative on the plains with comedic results, while Susanna White’s Woman Walks Ahead (June 29, limited release) dramatizes the true story of painter Catherine Weldon’s journey to paint a portrait of Hunkpap Lakota Chief Sitting Bull, with whom she becomes friends.
Susanna White, director of Woman Walks Ahead, says the genre had typically been a “man’s world”: Today, “We’re starting to see a lot more films now where women are thinking, more powerful people who have a voice just as men have had a voice in cinema for so long.”
Currently in development, Apacheria, a Makeready project starring Charlie Hunnam based on Paul Andrew Hutton’s book The Apache Wars, is set to center on a mixed-race warrior, while Empire of the Summer Moon, based on the book of the same name by S.C. Gwynne, will see Blue Valentine‘s Derek Cianfrance co-write and direct a film on Comanche chief Quanah Parker.
“There’s been somewhat of a renaissance with opportunities for Native American actors and their portrayals recently,” says Yellowstone actor Birmingham, who has appeared in two other modern Westerns written and directed by Taylor Sheridan, Hell or High Water (2016) and Wind River (2017). “There’s now a tide that wants to be more realistic of what the Native culture consists of.”
In recent years, select Westerns had begun diversifying the genre’s cast of heroes: 2017’s Netflix limited series Godless portrayed a Western town run by women, while Scott Cooper’s Hostiles grappled with 19th-century racism and the second season of HBO’s Westworld put a spotlight on Zahn McClarnon’s Ghost Nation leader.
Individual films have reversed traditional gender roles in the Western genre before: The Zellners say 1954’s Johnny Guitar starring Joan Crawford as a saloonkeeper fighting to keep her business alive and 1957’s Forty Guns, which sees Barbara Stanwyck as a powerful rancher with a private army of cowboys, paved the way for their film. 1990’s Dances With Wolves, Birmingham adds, triggered a wave of more complex parts for Native actors.
Westerns that do away with some of the genre’s tropes and archetypes are becoming more and more frequent. After Quentin Tarantino and the Coen Brothers re-popularized the genre starting in the 2010s, old Western projects with progressive messages are now seeing the light of day: Woman Walks Ahead, penned by Steve Knight, was originally developed 14 years ago by producer Ed Zwick; Godless creator Scott Frank says he began pitching the limited series as a film in 2004.
“The genre was a tough sell as a feature,” Frank says, due to the adage that Westerns don’t sell overseas. A few years later, Netflix was explicitly seeking out Western projects, and “literally overnight it came together.”
The foregrounding of more diverse characters hasn’t shielded today’s Westerns from criticisms of Hollywood whitewashing and cultural appropriation. Prominent Native actor Adam Beach (Suicide Squad), for instance, called for a boycott of Yellowstone last year when the reported Cherokee heritage of an actress playing one Native character was called into question.
Moreover, even among today’s titles, there are few Native Americans playing major behind-the-scenes roles. “Why couldn’t there be an entire track of Westerns created by Native content creators that begins to confront those classic storylines and stereotypes, that challenges those typical kinds of tropes?” Frozen River producer and Native American cinema advocate Heather Rae says. “It seems to me that it’s time for us to really disrupt the genre and start to see things differently.”
Birmingham is more patient with the direction of the industry, noting that Hollywood continues to make slow progress on representation. “You might not be able to [create change] as fast as you would like. If you can find an advocate or an ally that can help facilitate that, respect it. That’s my connection with Taylor,” he says.
On Woman Walks Ahead, White — who spent time in the Lakota community before filming — says she felt she felt a responsibility to “empower filmmakers from the community”: She hired Lakota community members for her crew and former Sundance Institute Native Filmmaker Lab Fellow Willi White as her assistant. “I wanted to have him shadow me so that in the future he could go out and tell those stories,” she says.
Though Rae is eager to see Native communities tell their own stories, she highlights the importance of listening for outside filmmakers who are incorporating Native characters into their projects. Native history is passed down through oral tradition, not just through history books, she says.
Rae says filmmakers should travel to communities to listen to these stories. She adds, “It’s the job of the storyteller to take that information, to ingest it with integrity and represent the story but also circle back to your sources, check in with them and get consensus to make sure you’re doing good.”
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