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The Standing Rock Sioux tribe’s successful appeal to divert the Dakota Access Pipeline one day may make a great film. In the meantime, Native American onscreen representation remains minimal, accounting for less than 1 percent of characters in the top 800 films from 2007 to 2015, according to a USC study published in September.
But a new project from Fox 2000 may offer a rare bright spot amid those dismal statistics. The studio has acquired Sherman Alexie’s 2007 YA novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, and Fox 2000 president Elizabeth Gabler has put the coming-of-age story on the fast track with a high-profile producing lineup: Hugh Jackman, Temple Hill’s Wyck Godfrey and Isaac Klausner (The Fault in Our Stars) and Lauren Shuler Donner (Deadpool).
Alexie (Anonymous), who wrote the 1998 indie breakout Smoke Signals, had received numerous offers over the years for Part-Time Indian, “but until this particular team, I’ve never had a set of producers be so faithful to the book,” he tells THR.
The film, which centers on a Spokane Indian Reservation teen who transfers to an all-white high school where the only other “Indian” is the school mascot, will mark the first known instance of a studio movie featuring a Native American protagonist. Jackman is eyeing a supporting role.
For an industry that long has relegated Native Americans to the nefarious periphery (John Ford’s The Searchers), whitewashed them (Rooney Mara as Tiger Lily in Pan) or lampooned them (Adam Sandler’s The Ridiculous 6), Part-Time Indian is a welcome change. Throughout its nearly decadelong run, the book continues to build momentum on The New York Times‘ best-seller list, hitting No. 1 for the first time in May. It remains a favorite among middle-school teachers for its realistic depictions of harsh issues including poverty and bulimia.
Alexie, who grew up on the reservation depicted in the book, is adapting the screenplay and will executive produce. He promises, “This is going to be culturally authentic.”
All this comes at a time when Native American actor and activist Myrton Running Wolf (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) is petitioning SAG-AFTRA to reverse its policy of not recognizing tribal enrollment (SAG-AFTRA has maintained it is illegal to request tribal verification from potential Native American employees or show preference based on it).
“It is not illegal for SAG-AFTRA, or any other entertainment guild/union, to acknowledge or request tribal enrollment verification,” says Running Wolf. “As a matter of fact, there are many government programs designed specifically to incentivize such actions. However, SAG-AFTRA’s position — one that is endemic of the entire entertainment industry — exacerbates the suppression of American Indian involvement in mainstream media production by claiming that the simple act of stating one’s Native American identity is unlawful.”
He continues: “This policy is wrong [and] denies the federal recognition granted to American Indian tribes by the U.S. government.”
Running Wolf says he has not received a response back from the organization.
A version of this story first appeared in the Dec. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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