Oh, great, another awful Adam Sandler movie.
Adam Sandler’s been in poor form since his nineties’ Wedding Singer days—from 2004’s Spanglish, which Variety’s Todd McCarthy called “a problematic attempt at contempo social commentary from an insular point of view,” to his 2014 comedy, Blended, which Richard Brody of The New Yorker deemed “a failure for the ages”—and it seems the 21st century has finally had enough.
Ridiculous 6, the first film in Adam Sandler’s four-movie deal with Netflix, garnered attention this April when about a dozen American Indian cast and crew members, and a cultural adviser walked off the set in protest of the film’s tasteless and culturally offensive jokes. Some Native American actors, as well as some executives at Netflix defended Sandler, claiming that everyone’s taking the jokes too seriously (“It’s a comedy, not a documentary”).
But is it really about our sense of humor?
The Atlantic’s Megan Garber argues that Adam Sandler’s movies aren’t bad because they’re offensive, but “because they’re insipid”: cheap jokes dependent on tired cliches that make no attempt to be anything more than what they are—cheap and tired. Like Garber says, it’s just not funny anymore: “they lack evidence of the intellectual infrastructure that is a basic requirement of satire.”
Don’t get me wrong; I’m no film critic and no Native American cultural expert. But I am a writer, a reader, and a Netflix-addict, and for me, robbing characters of complexity—reducing them to caricatures—is a type of violence.
And that’s not to say that every character needs to be complex, but that character representations should be fair, especially when considering the backdrop of cultural insensitivity and exoticization that has been the “Hollywood Indian.” Even the flattest of characters can be portrayed fairly with due diligence in research and respect.
So here’s what I’m going to do instead. Ridiculous 6 will air sometime in December 2015, but I’m not going to be watching. Rather, I’ll be turning my Netflix account to these 6 movies, which give a fair representation of Native American characters:
How many American Indian filmmakers, actors, and critics do you know? Ever wonder about Iron Eyes Cody in that infamous Crying Indian PSA of the Keep America Beautiful campaign? What about American Indian culture and the hippie generation?
Here’s a sobering yet humorous documentary by Cree filmmaker Neil Diamond, which looks at the history of Hollywood’s portrayal of Native Americans—from the exoticization to the downright violent and ridiculous; from the glory days of silent movies to the less-than-savory John Wayne Westerns—all the way to recent exciting developments in Indian American film culture.
It’s a generous look at a sometimes turbulent and embarrassing Hollywood history. An absolute must-see.
Cheyenne-Arapaho film director Chris Eyre directed this revolutionary movie which “paved the way for other American Indian artists to reach similar success as they combat the traditional Native American stereotypes created by the popular media,” according to Cultural Survival.
Smoke Signals is based on Spokane-Coeur d’Alene writer Sherman Alexie’s short story collection, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. This modern-day coming-of-age story centers on the journey of the two main characters—dorky-but-lovable Thomas and the cool, stoic Victor—who leave their home in the Coeur d’Alene reservation to retrieve the remains of Victor’s long lost father.
This movie has all the markings of Alexie’s humor, made accessible to a wider audience. At the heart of the film is the unlikely friendship between Thomas and Victor. It’s funny, heartwarming, and it asks the age-old question: How do we forgive our parents who inevitably will turn out to be flawed, just like the rest of us?
Check out Johnny Depp before he decided to take on his caricature Native American role in Disney’s 2013 The Lone Ranger. Directed by Jim Jarmusch, this black-and-white-shot movie deconstructs the traditional Western tropes that came before it.
According to Jens Martin Gurr, Professor of British and Anglophone Literature and Culture, Dead Man is an anti-Western that “is arguably more radical than any Western before in using the genre fundamentally to undermine its encoded American ideology as propounded all the way from John Winthrop to John Wayne.”
A drama-thriller directed by Alaskan, Andrew Okpeaha MacLean, On the Ice is a coming-of-age story set in Alaska which focuses on the friendship of two Inuit boys from vastly different backgrounds, who must live through the consequences of an accident and the choices that follow.
Taut with tension and moral ambiguity, it’s about the limits of friendship, being young, reckless, vulnerable to mistakes, and the oh-so-human instinct for self-preservation.
Winter in the Blood is an adaptation of a 1974 novel by a Great Plains Indian writer, James Welch. The directors, twin brothers Alex and Andrew Smith, grew up in rural Montana, and are close family friends with Welch. They signed on Spokane-Coeur d’Alene writer, Sherman Alexie, as the associate producer.
Forget cliches. Find here an unflinching look at the problems of alcoholism on the reservation. Alcohol is a character in this movie, both oppressive and tangible. Instead of giving us the stereotypical “drunk Injun,” it makes us care about the troubled protagonist, Virgil, a half-Blackfeet Indian. Virgil is a good man, though deeply flawed, a man of crushing loneliness and self-destructive tendencies.
At times, the movie is jarring, cutting from one surreal scene to the next. This camerawork reflects the disorienting experience of the character, whose side we never leave. The gaze is always his.
A movie by Sterlin Harjo, a Seminole/Creek film director and writer, (who also directed the Netflix-streamable documentary This May Be the Last Time (2014), which you should check out), Barking Water is about the privilege of redemption.
The movie begins with an escape: a terminally-ill man, Frankie, breaks out of the hospital with the help of his former lover, Irene, and they hit the road together in search of Frankie’s estranged family. This almost-playful beginning sets the tone for the movie, which mainly takes place on the road, and it’s pervaded with sadness.
The movie has a natural tension set up by Frankie’s rapidly waning health, which makes the 80-minute film feel shorter than it is. But by the end, you’re left with questions of home, family, and the impossibility of goodbye.
Ah-reum Han was born in South Korea and raised on the sandy savannas of West Africa. She’s been to five different continents, but learned to keep her feet still long enough to get her B.A. in Creative Writing and Cross-cultural Sociology from Carson-Newman University. She is currently a third-year M.F.A. candidate and thesis fellow in fiction at George Mason University.