By Frank Larue
Everyone seemed in agreement about James Cameron’s epic masterpiece Avatar. The movie has dwarfed all films ever made with revenues of $1.5 billion. Avatar is still showing in theatres all over the world, and the publicity it will receive in the Oscars may well put it over the $2 billion mark, surpassing Titanic. The film has been hailed by critics and fans alike as one of the great movies of all time. Unfortunately, Cree film director Neil Diamond does not agree. In fact, Diamond is disturbed by the portrayal of Aboriginal people in Cameron’s movie, referring to Avatar as “Dances with Pocahontas in Space.”
Diamond admits, “I was dying to see it when it came out, and everyone was talking about how brilliant it was—at least technologically. And it was gorgeous to look at. But it was insulting to think so little had really changed in the myth of the white man and the noble savage. Like, I watched those kinds of westerns growing up as a kid, and they always showed the Native people as these wise, noble, heroic-to-the-point-of-inhuman characters. Either that or a beautiful princess.”
Neil has made his own documentary called Reel Injun, which explores the how Native people have been depicted on the silver screen. “I had the idea for the movie about seven or eight years ago when I was watching TV,” he said. “There was an old western on, and it had a white guy playing a Native guy and I thought, ‘Wow! That’s funny.’” There were no Indians in early silent films, and in most movies made after 1930, Indians were either attacking the wagon train or taking on the U.S. Cavalry. What Diamond came to realize is that with all the cowboy movies, very few of the actors portraying Indians were actually Aboriginal. One of the few exceptions was the Lone Ranger, a popular TV show of the ‘50s in which Jay Silverheels played the part of Tonto, but you would be hard pressed to name another Indian actor of the same time period.
When it comes to Indians on film, Diamond points out, “There’s always the risk with white people, who seem to have this desire to romanticize Natives, that they’re not seeing us as people. We’re just ordinary human beings. We aren’t all in tune with nature. We don’t all speak to spirits and spout words of wisdom. But white people really like to see us that way.”