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Late to the game, but still somewhat curious, Hollywood has slowly been integrating the phenomenon of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women into television storylines in recent years. Naturally, the industry has latched onto this long-unfolding tragedy in its usual way: Making MMIW a secondary storyline within the development of a white protagonist.
I’m firmly in the “something is generally better than nothing” camp, but I would never say that shows like Big Sky, Dexter: New Blood, Alaska Daily or Three Pines were even fleetingly ABOUT Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. They namecheck a trend.
Murder in Big Horn
Directors: Razelle Benally and Matthew Galkin
Showtime’s new docuseries Murder in Big Horn is actually about Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (often extended to include “and Girls”) and, as such, it’s important. Directors Razelle Benally, an Indigenous filmmaker who identifies as Oglala Lakota/Diné, and Matthew Galkin (Showtime’s Murder in the Bayou) endeavor to give names and faces and stories to some of the young women who might otherwise be background statistics and, in that, they succeed admirably.
At the same time, Murder in Big Horn fits into a trend of its own, namely the increasingly prevalent “three-part documentary series,” a thing that — I will continue to emphasize — means, with annoying frequency, either a poorly focused and edited feature or an insufficiently developed longer series. It’s usually a little of both. Murder in Big Horn has traces of a tight and powerful film, probably built around crusading Native journalist Luella Brien, and elements of a wider-ranging series that, owing to the breadth of the crisis, could have been eight or 10 hours or more. Especially in the third episode, the flaws of structure and emphasis left me disappointed — but not so disappointed that I wouldn’t recommend this foregrounding of an urgent story.
I actually wonder if Alaska Daily — featured, but in no way critiqued, in clips acknowledging the aforementioned late-in-coming Hollywood recognition of MMIW — scared the filmmakers away from doing the version of the story with the journalistic center. Brien is still the spine of the story and, especially in that all-over-the-place third episode, we see her pounding the pavement and interviewing sources; you might even wonder if she’s on the verge of breaking an unimaginably big story. Where she could also have been included in the heart of the story — she has a family history with MMIW, plus a soon-to-be-teen daughter of her own — is, rather, weirdly treated as an afterthought. She’s a hero in real life, which isn’t the same as the series using her as a protagonist.
The directors would want to think that their protagonists are Henny Scott, Kaysera Stops Pretty Places, Shacaiah Harding and Selena Not Afraid, four girls who went missing from a stretch of Big Horn County in Montana over the course of a decade. They’re represented in pictures, social media presences and through the loving memories of friends and family. They’re only a selection of the women and girls who went missing specifically from the one county on I-90, but their disappearances have many things in common, from their ages to their tribal roots to their troubled backgrounds to the tragic resolutions of their cases.
They don’t represent every single missing and murdered indigenous woman or girl, but the responses to their disappearances — from the relative silence around Henny to the resource-heavy manhunt for Selena — show the escalation in interest around cases like these. But the results are the same.
More than anything, that’s the takeaway from Murder in Big Horn, sadly. No matter how much you want a single answer or a single solution here, there isn’t one. If the series has a structure in its three episodes — and I’ve been talking myself into the idea that it has one — it’s this: The first episode teases the sensationalized version of the MMIW story, the urban legends about truck-driving serial killers making their way from state to stay preying on young women with no institutional power as law enforcement either looks the other way or actively participates in a cover-up. The second episode muddies the waters, suggesting insidious levels of Native-on-Native crime, and even goes so far as to give one former local undersheriff the platform to claim that MMIW isn’t a thing at all — though he offers no tangible data to defend his hot take, places the blame disproportionately at the feet of the victims’ families and contradicts himself in several very obvious ways. Then the third episode says something along the lines of, “Look, whatever the answer actual is, it relates to hundreds of years of trauma in Native communities. And whether it’s partially a white bogeyman or partially tied to generations of simmering abuse within Tribes, you have to understand the psychology of a colonized people to fully grasp it.”
That last point is almost certain to be too pragmatic for viewers who want a neat and tidy answer, or for viewers who got lured by several twists at the end of the second episode into thinking the series was going to take a more familiar true-crime structure. We watch true-crime shows and listen to true-crime podcasts, and we latch onto any name or relationship and spin conspiracy theories around them. When the third episode has no way to offer the conclusion that genre devotees demand, it’s by design.
I’m still not sure if I like that the series has been named to imply a connection to Galkin’s Murder in the Bayou. I thought that series did a lot of things very well and, like Murder in Big Horn, it was characterized by haunting photography and a matching score. But that show was much more in that traditional true-crime vein, and forcing this story to piggyback on the title and the genre is unfair and a little marginalizing. Murder in Big Horn is not just a mystery. It’s an entrenched crisis of culture.
At the same time, that last point is far more complicated than the directors have the time or resources to adequately present in the rushed concluding segments. The final episode has Brien doing journalism, several other people doing protest advocacy, a cursory history of the scandal that was Indian boarding schools, a half-dozen sentimental montages and a call to action about the need to more fully value Indigenous lives, as well as little details about local police insularity that are misdirects more than anything else. At times it’s poignant, at times it points to seeds of provocative ideas, and it’s generally righteous in its message. But it’s also an ill-formed jumble, dominated by passion.
That said, it’s still a better way to examine this plight than a subplot in a broadcast procedural.
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