Film Review: Elijah

Story by Morgan O’Neal

After having watched a very good movie like Elijah, the rating criteria culled from scenes that rely on the easy filler of everyday cursing and using and abusing known in the rating and marketing business as “coarse language” and “drug use” just don’t remain in the memory very long because they become all but meaningless. If there was in fact a scene in which profanity found its way around the fire where the gang was smoking reefers to the tunes of the rock and roll guitar riffs that dominate the music of the film’s score, then I must have been more interested at the time in the crowd that filled the theatre and the irritating guy next to me who was busy for the better part of an hour chowing down on popcorn and slurping up great gulps of Pepsi supplied at god knows what exorbitant price by one of the corporate donors without which the Vancouver Film Festival would not exist. But there were very few moments during this film when I was not intently involved in the story

My experience of the film would have been enhanced immensely without the sofa-fed gluttony and desert degree thirst that seems to have attracted my neighbor to the right to the film in the first place. But Elijah is a hell of a good family film, a film that should be shown in every public school in the country as soon as it is humanly possible. Elijah should be shown in schools because the film’s real and extremely important message is that Elijah Harper the fostered child who became the heroic man was an inspiration to an entire generation of native and non-native activists.

Paul Unwin directed this docu-drama about real-life Canadian hero Elijah Harper, who in 1990 ground the Meech Lake Accord to a halt by refusing to bow to Brian Mulroney and the then “Progressive” Conservative government. In fact, Harper, an Ojibwa-Cree from Red Sucker Lake in Northern Manitoba, is responsible for one of the shortest, and most pivotal utterances in Canadian history: “No!” As the Festival blurb puts it, “Canadian historical fiction, especially documenting a filibuster and procedural delay in ratification of a bill, is rarely related with such punch and bravado. Director Unwin’s innovative visual style and surf-guitar soundtrack help to galvanize the key events in Harper’s life that led him to hold an eagle feather, and the fate of Canada, in his hand. If anything, Unwin’s film positions Harper, played by Billy Merasty, as a rock and roll rebel who bravely faced down constant racism from white people and criticism from his peers. Archival footage is deftly interwoven with dramatizations of Harper’s life which grounds the film within an historical context, but enables it to make critical comments on the process of Patriation and the definition of “Canadian.”

In 1990 the fate of the Meech Lake Accord (and possibly Canada) hung on the sound and sense of a single word spoken by Elijah Harper, the otherwise humble and modest man that dared to defy Brian Mulroney , Mulroney was then, and as it turns out in retrospect, still is the most hated Prime Minister in Canadian history. This man Elijah, therefore, who held in his hand not only an eagle feather, but the direction of our democracy, should if even the commonest of logics hold, be one of our most loved citizens. This essential truth is in fact verified and legitimized by the enthusiastic response, the spontaneous and unanimous applause which arose at each of the scenes toward the end of the film where the heroic nature and the natural goodness of the man Elijah were made clear and unambiguous.

The self-loathing urge of Canadian film criticism to trash if possible (and nit-pick if not) Canadian movies just withers in the whirl of well managed and manipulated emotional appeal here. “Elijah” could have been directed by any inebriated pseudo-celebrity, even Ben Mulroney, famous son of that King of the Jungle Lion Brian himself and still the cameras would have been drawn by divine providence to the significant image, the important moment, the necessary turn of events. It is in fact a David and Goliath tale told with the subtlety of a unique Canadian sensibility.

We can see the Mafioso circles begin to form in the background around the silent thinking of the aptly named protagonist. The current leader of the Assembly of First Nations is always available as ambiguous source of support and advice. And a regional chief we know better now as the funny cop (Lorne Cardinal) on another CTV production Corner Gas, he is there too. And the acting is great at every level of analysis. There is a hint of menace in the disunity that follows these Native activists and organizers during the time leading up to the final unraveling in the now historic event. And of course the pimple-faced white boy who becomes the legal beagle needed to meet the politicians on their own turf.

Now we know, as we all should, where Elijah came from, and what he has been through, and how he fits the role providence forced him to play in Canada’s ongoing story. The script supplies the necessary information and gets to the point as quickly as is cinematically advisable. And don’t ignore the finely crafted critique of the Foster System and the perfect performances of the actors who play Elijah’s foster parents. The just plain stupidity of the father and the ironic take on the mother’s ‘natural’ pride in her ’son’s’ achievements after all is said and done. This sub-plot which runs through most of the film is politically speaking, appropriation critique at its best, and hilarious at the same time, without diminishing the severity of a problem which continues to plague our communities.