May 11th, 2007

Jin Shei Cover from sgreer

History is not enough

I noticed, the other day, an ad for an HBO movie entitled "Bury my heart at Wounded Knee". And I told rdeck, "TiVO that. Right now."

I guess I should have known better.

According to this article what things boil down to is this: the film *needed a white [or at least half-white] protagonist* to get it carried by the *white* audience. So they essentially transposed a couple of convenient characters: a half-white, half-Sioux fellow - a historical figure to be sure, but one who was demonstrably not dodging Custer's bullets on teh battlefield - and an all-white woman poet who happened to be a couple of inconvenient states away from the battle in question when it was taking place but has now been brought back to grace it with her angelic white female presence.

I have to admit, when I saw the ad on TV, I was wondering what Anna Paquin was doing in that movie, dressed up in demure Victorian frontier fashion. Well, now I know.

HBO states that this is a "dramatization", and they "needed a protagonist". So they felt justified in bending history into pretzels in order to get what they wanted. This is the same company that proudly trumpeted its devotion to strict historical accuracy when they made the much-acclaimed series about Elizabeth I. The moral of the story is, when history is about white people, it needs to be "Accurate". When history involves non-white people, especially non-white people who have been historically treated like the Indians have been by the white folk in America, why, we will bend history. Am I the only one who finds the entire idea appalling?

There's been a huge amount of noise and chatter and blowing smoke in genre circles about cultural appropriation, about writing cultures that are OTHER to your own, and doing it with sympathy, with care, with respect. But apparently, in cases like this, we need to gloss over certain things - because to do otherwise might trigger too much sympathy and respect for the "other" side, the not-us side. God help us if we tell the truth. Especially in the movies. Everyone knows that what you see in movies is what REALLY happened.

There are a couple of quotes from Nicholas Proctor, the grandson of the original author of the book on which this movie is supposedly based, that would seem to be apropos. Mr Proctor, in addition to being one of three people who are overseeing the author's estate and also an associate professor of history at a college in Iowa, said that, as a historian, he was -


“always kind of shocked that history is not moving enough, is not evocative enough and rich enough to keep people from having to get in there and start monkeying around with it.”

He added,

“I don’t think he ever thought anything historically accurate would come out of any film version,” he said. Still, before this, “nobody had ever before gone and gutted it and turned it into a love story.”

Perhaps some things should not be filmed. If, after looking at a candidate, it is deemed that it would not work on screen - for whatever reasons - then it would be both kinder and more honest to go looking for a new property, one that better matched one's visions. It's bad enough when they shred a work of FICTION to make it fit into a movie mold, and then have the gall to lure audiences into the cinema by trumpeting the title of the book the movie is "based on", even though the title might be all that's left of the original story. But doing it with a work of history - and especially a work of such tragic and poignant history as Wounded Knee - that's something else again. I'm not sure it's forgivable.