Dead Man - Gary Farmer as NobodyDead Man (1995) – dir. Jim Jarmusch

Johnny Depp is William Blake, a white Clevelander who comes out West, in search of a job.  He quickly becomes wanted for several murders, some of which he commits.  His only friend is “Nobody,” who is part Cree and part Blackfoot.

Dead Man has been lauded for its accurate portrayal of American Indian culture, and the use of untranslated language.  Director Jim Jarmusch told Jonathan Rosenbaum:

“I just wanted to make an Indian character who wasn’t either A) the savage that must be eliminated, the force of nature that’s blocking the way for industrial progress, or B) the noble innocent that knows all and is another cliché. I wanted him to be a complicated human being.”

Jarmusch even hired a member of the Native American Church to be a cultural adviser on the film,  and they held religious ceremonies in the morning before shoots.

But despite Jarmusch’s attempts to (temporarily) immerse himself in the culture, and despite Dead Man‘s improvements on the ways American Indian are usually treated on film, Dead Man remains problematic.  Jarmusch is not an American Indian.  Dead Man tells the story of an ethnic minority, as seen by a member of the dominant group.

Dead Man - Johnny DeppDepp’s character is our white guide into Native culture; our John Dunbar or Natty Bumppo. The white characters are nearly divided into Racist and Not-Racist, and the Racists aren’t just racist — they also curse, have an accent, use non-standard grammar, don’t shave, don’t wash their hair, and commit violence for fun.  The audience is then allowed to neatly evade any questions about race or present-day attitudes towards Native culture.  “I, of course, clearly would have been a Non-Racist if I had back then,” is the thought, and it’s usually accompanied by a dismissal of modern racism.

This is pretty much the tact that Westerns have taken for the past half-century.   In some ways, I’d prefer John Wayne in The Searchers — at least it was honest.

In the documentary Reel Injun, by Cree filmmaker Neil Diamond, the theory is advanced that the embrace of American Indian imagery by hippies and the leftists in North America is about Europeans trying to connect with their owns pasts.  Certainly this makes sense when you look at the appropriation of American Indian themes in American and Anglo scouting and youth camps.  Could the New Age use of American Indian, Celtic and other European pagan reconstructed traditions support this idea?

Adam Call Roberts

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