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A scene from Reel Injun.

Reel Injun

  • Directed by Neil Diamond
  • Written by Catherine Bainbridge, Neil Diamond, Jeremiah Hayes
  • Classification: PG

In my youth, cowboys and Indians went together like horses and stagecoaches. Big screen or small, you couldn't have one without the other - the Lone Ranger and Tonto, Red Ryder and Little Beaver. And those were just the duos who got along. More common were those who didn't, like Custer and Sitting Bull.

Director Neil Diamond remembers seeing many cowboy-and-Indian movies growing up in northern Quebec. Almost always he found himself rooting for the cowboys. Nothing strange about that, at least at first. Hollywood has made more than 4,000 native-themed movies in the last 100 years, the vast majority being in the cowboy/Indian idiom and institutionally "pro-cowboy." What came to strike Diamond as peculiar was that he and his pals "had cheered for the cowboys without realizing we were Indians" - James Bay Cree, in fact.

It's this bittersweet insight that's the springboard for Reel Injun, Diamond's entertaining and informative documentary on how native people have been portrayed on-screen over the years and how these portrayals have shaped native self-perception and non-native prejudice. Unsurprisingly, the film has plenty of wince-inducing, sometimes blackly humored archival moments. But Diamond's overarching "message" is positive, optimistic even, as he illustrates how native filmmakers worldwide have started to tell their own stories their own way ( Atanarjuat, Whale Rider) to universal acclaim.

Reel Injun is loosely structured as a cross-continent road trip, pausing to visit sites such as South Dakota's Wounded Knee and San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury (where Diamond meets Sacheen Littlefeather, Marlon Brando's 1973 Oscar stand-in). Other talking heads include Zacharias Kunuk, Clint Eastwood and Adam Beach.