The time of the Indigenous critic has arrived

Now that the industry is finally greenlighting Indigenous films and TV, Indigenous critics ought to lead the conversation.

Typically, when it’s time for the Q&A portion of a film screening, a few people duck out early; that’s just how it is. But you can usually count on good responses from those who stick around. Usually. One night in Colorado, though, things went a little differently. I was with my castmates at the 2017 Durango Independent Film Festival, waiting for a Q&A session for our film Chasing the Light. Directed by Blackhorse Lowe, it’s an artsy, hilarious, brash modern work that deals with heavy themes in funny ways. At the start, the protagonist, Riggs, wants to kill himself, but his friends knock him back into reality. In one sequence, when he tries hanging himself, one of them stops him, and they downplay the incident as autoerotic asphyxiation gone awry. Shot in black-and-white, Chasing the Light demands a certain patience. The first 20 minutes slowly set the tone, then the film leads you down a path of misadventures in Albuquerque and the modern Southwest.

 

The 50 or so people at the Durango screening that day probably watched a film much darker than they expected, especially since it was part of the “Native” program. But that night was supposed to be our reward for getting to make the film, in a way. I considered myself friends with everyone involved in Chasing the Light, and I was excited that we could all drive to the screening. My character — named Doral, like the cheap cigarettes — was pretty sleazy, and I couldn’t wait to see the audience’s reaction.

That is, until a white woman told us all onstage, in front of the crowd, that we were not good representatives of Native work. A white lady told us this. I sat there, biting my tongue. What I wanted to say was that while she surely had her own opinions — many, no doubt, derived from Hollywood — about what Indigenous narratives could and should look like, as far as we were concerned, speaking as actual Indigenous filmmakers, she could kindly fuck off. Instead, I deferred to the director, figuring it wasn’t my place. Blackhorse, of course, was used to this sort of thing, or more skilled in the art of diplomacy, and he patiently tried to explain his work to the woman, describing what he was doing with narrative and story. At least, that’s how I remember it. Honestly, I was so angry that I sort of erased this part of it from my memory.

Simply being a cheerleader isn’t enough — either for us or for the work itself.

In 2021, with shows like Rutherford Falls and Reservation Dogs beginning to break through to the mainstream, it’s important for Indigenous critics to rise to the occasion and critique these works as only we can. Because in our absence, and even in our presence, the kind of mistaken ownership of the Indigenous narrative that I witnessed in Durango will constantly have to be reckoned with.

The false tropes and stereotypes long propagated by major studios have only been amplified by critics and audiences conditioned to misunderstand what we’re doing — both in revealing our humanity as Indigenous people and fulfilling our mission as artists. These must be dismantled before you can even begin to do the work of actual criticism. Indigenous creators come from a background of Indigeneity, and Indigenous critics understand Indigeneity and can provide insight that non-Indigenous critics might overlook, or even romanticize. You will never hear me accuse another Indigenous filmmaker, as that white woman did, of not being the right kind of “representative.” You might hear me accuse an Indigenous filmmaker of being corny, but that’s something else entirely. As we work at dismantling misconceptions, we must keep in mind that Indigenous work deserves the same respect and intellectual discussion that any other work does. Simply being a cheerleader isn’t enough — either for us or for the work itself.

In early 2019, Tristan Ahtone, who was then High Country News’ Indigenous Affairs editor, had an idea. What if we did an Indigenous film review every month for a year? Up to that point I’d written a piece or two about film for HCN, but a review every month seemed ambitious. I liked the challenge, but had to ask Tristan: Are there enough Indigenous films to get us through a year? I still had contacts from my time as a fellow at the Sundance Institute, from my own short films and from working on other productions. Screening my work at film festivals over the years expanded my horizons as well. But writing about Indigenous film every month for a full year — could it be done?

Jolene Yazzie/High Country News

I shook the tree. Turns out that 2019 was a good year for thought-provoking Indigenous films. Filmmaker Jeffrey Palmer finally gave fellow Kiowa citizen and renowned writer N. Scott Momaday the cinematic profile he deserved in his documentary, Words from a Bear. Momaday’s regal persona is made for the screen, and in my opinion he’s never received enough media coverage. Tantoo Cardinal made an amazing comeback in Darlene Naponse’s edgy film, Falls Around Her. Naponse devotes a film to an older female Native rock star whose life is full of romance and intrigue. Show me another film like this, and I’d watch it, too, gladly. (There isn’t one.) Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers and Kathleen Hepburn co-directed an experimental film with a long title, The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open — a film that, frankly, challenged my sensibilities. It threw itself headfirst into the concept of telling a story in real time, and while I wasn’t entirely sold on the idea, it reminded me of something I think about to this day: Good art, or at least thought-provoking art, ought to make you react, perhaps in binary ways. Love it or hate it, but talk about it. Mediocrity is death, and it’s for squares.

Mediocrity is death,
and it’s for squares.

With seven pieces over 12 months, Tristan and I came pretty close to meeting our initial goal. But the number was less important than the fact I got to spend that year looking at these films from my own perspective, which is decidedly Indigenous. The Indigenous films and TV shows of today, unlike those of the past, don’t feel like they have to show all their cards at once. They can spread their ideas out over a season in a series format, or exploit the freedom of a film or documentary to ignore the once-obligatory industry diktat that forced us to water down and generalize for the comfort of non-Indigenous audiences. Studying TV in the Institute of American Indian Arts’ ABC program in 2006, I remember the creative executives who parachuted into Santa Fe to critique us. “You have to think universally,” they said. The work I wanted to do was too Native-centric; there had to be commercials, after all, to sell stuff to white people, their biggest demographic. That’s where the money was made, back then. In their view, there weren’t enough Indigenous people to spend money on the products being advertised. We had to think about the overall demographic; we had to think generically. Now, fortunately, cultural specificity is not only encouraged but rewarded. And, despite everything, there’s still money to be made.

Heretofore, in my reviews, I’ve straddled a fine line. I try to write critically while recognizing that at times I’m writing about personal friends, some of whom are still coming up, still finding their voices. And I still create work myself; right now, I’m in post-production of a short film. I already know what it’s like to face feedback; I’ve been to film festivals and been rewarded by people laughing and applauding my work. But I’ve also seen people criticize work I’ve been in, sometimes fiercely. And just as French filmmakers Éric Rohmer, Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut wrote about French cinema for Cahiers du Cinema, we need Indigenous critics to encourage conversation. We need critics willing to look at our own Indigenous artists with a critical eye. We need to attempt to detach ourselves, to give ourselves enough space to be able to say: “This is good,” or “This is not so good,” and to explain why. Just as we Indigenous critics celebrate recent Indigenous breakthroughs in film and TV, we have to claim this space for ourselves, to express honest, thoughtful opinions on the work, and, when necessary, make mistakes and missteps, just as other artists do. The mainstream is new territory for us all.

We have to claim this space for ourselves, to express honest, thoughtful opinions on the work, and, when necessary, make mistakes and missteps.

My feeling is that good art can represent the collective thoughts and dreams of people and their communities. Often it’s not formal, at times it can get messy, but that’s what makes it beautiful. Good art breaks boundaries and makes you think, and talk, and argue about it. 

And so, to answer the question I posed earlier, do we have enough Indigenous work to critically watch and write about? I think the answer now is yes, we do. We’ve reached that goal. High-fives all around. Now, how do we write about all of it?   

Jason Asenap is a Comanche and Muscogee Creek writer and director (and an occasional actor) based in Albuquerque, New Mexico. We welcome reader letters. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy.