Tuesday, March 08, 2016

The Revenant and Hollywood’s Treatment of American History

When I walked out of the theater after watching “The Revenant,” I was in a state of awe. Taut, thrilling, beautifully filmed, amazing characters — I was really impressed with the film and, of course, Leonardo DiCaprio’s heart wrenching performance. Now that I’ve had a few days to think about it, however, my take on the movie is evolving, not regarding the excellent work of everyone involved in the production, but about the storyline subtexts.

“The Revenant” actually has much in common with the 1972 movie “Jeremiah Johnson” starring Robert Redford. Both feature a white man dissatisfied with civilization who escapes to the untamed western mountains. As mountain men, Johnson and Glass are attracted to Native Americans and their culture, each marrying a tribal woman. After a cataclysmic event, a bear attack in Glass’s case, Johnson leads white settler through sacred native land, they must endure unimaginable hardships and violence to survive. Each movie ends with a resolution that is both satisfying, and at the same time questionable, knowing how much the journey has cost each man.

In both “The Reverent” and “Jeremiah Johnson,” each protagonist is a white man who can’t help but have a foot in both the racist white civilization from which they came and the dying Native American culture, which they aspire to. It is in each case, however, a white man’s story. It feels as though these two movies, and others, like “Dancing with Wolves,” are Hollywood’s very weak and anglo-centric attempt at apologizing for the genocide of Native Americans. It’s as if they’re saying, “Wait, we weren’t all racist, genocidal maniacs.”

It is, however, a lame and insulting attempt. Think about a movie where a Nazi soldier hides some Jews and despises Hitler. It could be an intriguing movie, but is a film about a do-gooder Nazi any kind of apology for the horrors of the Third Reich? Not all the Nazis were bad. So what?

We, our white ancestors, committed genocide on a national scale and making some movies about good-guy whites during that period only distracts us from the reality of our crime. America has yet to come to grips with our treatment of Native Americans from nearly the moment the Pilgrims landed here to this very day where they are still living in atrocious conditions on reservations. “The Revenant” is a story about a good white man vs. an evil white man. The Native Americans are mostly props for historical authenticity, but don’t be tricked into believing this is their story. That movie has yet to be made.

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