Like Leonardo DiCaprio's survivalist hero Hugh Glass, the cultural conversation around The Revenant refuses to die. Released in Canada on Jan. 8, and given a promotional boost after scoring big at the Golden Globes and reaping 12 Academy Award nominations, Alejandro Inarritu's dark drama is beautiful, powerful and – most remarkable for a Hollywood production – comprehensive and accurate in its depiction of indigeneity.
But the film isn't perfect.
Set in 1823 and loosely based on a novel by Michael Punke, The Revenant recounts the perilous adventure of DiCaprio's Glass, a frontiersman hell-bent on avenging the death of his half-indigenous son after being thrashed by a CGI grizzly bear and abandoned by his troop of not-so-fellow fur trappers. While the Alberta- and B.C.-shot film uses culturally appropriate indigenous garb, construction and languages, – and hundreds of indigenous extras and actors – indigeneity seems ultimately subservient to the white protagonist.
Ryan McMahon, the Anishinaabe/Métis host of podcast Red Man Laughing, told CBC that The Revenant is not a film for or about Indigenous people. Blackfoot author Gyasi Ross wrote in The Huffington Post that "the actual human story pushed The Revenant into the same 'white savior' garbage pile that has permeated pretty much any mainstream movie that includes Natives as major characters." And The New Yorker's Richard Brody wrote that "Inarritu's sympathy for the indigenous people of the region … veers toward an exaltation of them as magical exceptions."
"It felt like a movie I've seen before. The western genre has some inherent representation issues with indigenous people," says Jesse Wente, director of film programmes at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto. "We've seen very rarely where filmmakers and artists are able to overcome the genre's embedded racism, and I don't think this movie really does."
Wente believes The Revenant, like Kevin Costner's Dances with Wolves, strongly adheres to indigenous authenticity. But that quest for authenticity is overshadowed by simplification. The film's indigenous characters, for instance, have unexplained roles. All we know about Glass's wife is that the pair were deeply in love and she was tragically killed. Parallel narratives in the film – such as the indigenous chief Elk Dog's quest to rescue his abducted daughter Powaqa – are depreciated, too, because little information is given about the non-white characters. If indigenous people were cut from the film entirely, Wente says, the movie wouldn't change much at all.
Ultimately, Wente says, the film's narrative – including a scene in which Glass rescues Powaqa from rape at the hands of a French fur-trapper – is part of a colonial tradition, one where "indigeneity is sidelined. It's used to further the story of the central figure who's Leonardo DiCaprio. … The film can't ultimately escape the fact that it's telling American history and it's fulfilling the myths that America was founded on."
Craig Falcon is a Blackfoot who served as The Revenant's cultural adviser. He counters that the film "is groundbreaking moviemaking for indigenous people and stories," and that the depiction of the conquest of North America was accurate. Falcon also ensured the film authentically portrayed those who inhabited the region, such as Arikara and Pawnee.
The Revenant was Falcon's first job with the film industry. He specializes in indigenous history, medicines, hunting, healing, games and horses, and served as executive director of the International Traditional Games Society, an organization devoted to preserving indigenous games. Falcon made his appearance on set after his girlfriend alerted him to the opportunity. After meeting production director Jack Fisk, he left with the gig.
"We put so much hard work into this, making sure everything was culturally appropriate, all the way down to the language," Falcon says. "For the film company and the entire crew to take the time to understand Native Americans and embrace it was amazing."
Inarritu and Fisk also asked Falcon to perform a traditional blessing before shooting began. "It took two or three hours to bring the entire crew there – just an army of people – to bless traditionally," Falcon says. "After that, it became a daily thing."
Grace Dove, a member of Canim Lake Indian Band in B.C., played Glass's wife in the film and remembers learning Pawnee. "Everything coming out of my mouth had to be precise," she says. Dove admits she initially felt apprehension toward assuming the role of a character from a different nation than her own, but that changed over time. "Once I started working on the project, I realized the intentions behind the director and team, and it was all coming from the right place, and this really strong level of respect."
While The Revenant will continue to generate debate as the Academy Awards approaches, there are also plenty of indigenous filmmakers making movies about indigenous people. This year's Sundance Film Festival, for example, is exhibiting the work of six filmmakers who identify as indigenous, including Caroline Monnet.
A self-taught Montreal filmmaker of Algonquin and French descent, Monnet will screen her latest short film, Mobilize, at the festival this weekend. The three-minute work, which was commissioned by the National Film Board and scored by Polaris Prize winner Tanya Tagaq, was designed to portray "images of indigenous people kicking ass onscreen," Monnet says.
The filmmaker created the work by selecting images shot on 16 mm of indigenous people living in the 1960s and 70s displaying their skills, talents, fashion and identity, regardless if they're in the city or not. She wanted to portray indigenous people in a positive, more contemporary light.
"There's a history of indigenous people being portrayed in this romantic view," Monnet says. "The work I do is to juncture those expectations or stereotypical images. It's really important that we see more indigenous stories made by indigenous people, and by doing that we have contemporary stories, contemporary indigenous stories."