I know I should just leave it alone, but I can't. The HBO adaptation of Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee grates at so many levels, I've been trolling mainstream and ethnic press outlets*** whenever a bit of free time presented itself trying to figure out ... what? I can't articulate it. Let's say I wanna know all I can about this latest (and monumental) manifestation of the Two Nations thing and leave it at that.
For those who don't feel like clicking for background, here's what the team of producers Dick Wolf, Tom Thayer and Clara George, screenwriter Daniel Giat, and director Yves Simoneau did when they turned this touchstone book into a movie. First they placed a half-white, assimilated Sioux and his white wife at the center of a movie based on a book about Native American history in which this couple DOES NOT APPEAR. They did this because they felt white audiences would not relate to a story about Native Americans unless white people (or someone assimilated enough to be comfortable for whites) were inserted into the core of the narrative. Then they went around justifying themselves.
To borrow a phrase, I Am Not Making This Up.
I realize that part of my reaction stems from my affection (an oddly awkward term, considering, yet appropriate) for the source material. But part of it goes back to the reality of dual history, the ignorance of the same, and the right the dominant culture claims to manipulate or ignore history at will. I know I've gotten into around here somewhere, but at the moment I can't remember how/when and don't feel like searching the site to find it. (I don't think you should, either, because I'm sure I just rambled on and on and on. Kinda like now.) Reading one of the Wiscon reports made me think of this, too. On the off chance I don't remember which one it was by the time I'm done typing, I'll return later and update with a link. The panel this person described was fascinating and sounded both frustrating and typical. Found them! Here's the one that got me started. Here's the one from the newly-launched Aqueduct Press blog (yaaaay!) which was written by the person who made "the only non-sporkworthy comment during the entire time," which makes perfect sense when you think about it. There's a couple more, but I have to re-find them.
Anywho, I know the production team insisted they had to have whites as focus for reasons of marketing, but I don't *get* it if that makes sense? I don't accept it. There was Roots. There was OZ. There was Homicide. There was Good Times. There was Waiting To Exhale. There are all of those n/b/h/c hip-hop stars at the top of the charts and in the fabric of our culture. NONE of those became hits due to the sole efforts of the black audience. Every single one of them became hits because of crossover appeal. White people, of which there are more, turned over their attention, time, money, friends, family and (in some cases) dubious accolades to make these pop cultural offerings from the brown people huge.
Roots was a true risk, when you think about it. It was one of the very first miniseries, airing for days. It was about slavery, a topic in which white people rarely come across in a good light. It aired a scant dozen years after the Voting Rights Act was passed. It was within striking distance of the murder of key leaders, the nationwide riots, the commissions. There's all SORTS of reasons that series should have bombed, and yet it went on to become one of the biggest hits in television history. The series, and its source material, are so well regarded that both survived the controversy over Haley's plagiarism and acts of fiction passed off as fact pretty much intact. That doesn't happen very often.
If the producers of 1977 were unwilling to find a white person to build their adaptation around, if they had the courage and faith to try and pull it off, WHY did the producers of 2007 turn into cowards when they were on deck?
What I didn't realize until I started hunting for info is that the production team used more than one excuse for their chosen approach. We already know what the Wounded Knee team's big excuse was. Another justification they floated was the casting issue:
Then producer Tom Thayer added his comments about deciding to see if the film rights were up for grabs. Thayer said that the book had been optioned a number of times, but a film had never been made. The book follows a number of tribes through treaties, skirmishes and wars from 1860 to 1890.
"I called Sterling Lord in New York and I said, 'Why hasn't anybody ever done it before?' and he said, 'Well, my dear boy, you know, if you've read the book, it's all told from their point of view, so who would you cast?'" Thayer said. "It was an interesting observation."
If you clicky, read to the end of this story, particularly if you've never read this book. The last two graphs? What she said. Meanwhile, it does kinda look like they found a lot of natives to cast, after all. Clearly the producers are talking Q-ratings, popularity and market draw were their concerns when it came to casting. Again, I go back to Roots. They did seed the cast with familiar names, but a whole hell of a lot of black people in that series I'm gonna guess the basic American pop culture consumer had never heard of until the credits rolled. Many of them came from theater. And the key role, Kunta/La Forge/LaVar Burton, was in college at the time (if memory serves). Nobody had heard of him! They put him in there anyway.
If they were so afraid of not being able to find an anchor cast, the BMH@WK production team could have raided the casts of Smoke Signals, Lakota Woman, that highly irritating Val Kilmer movie or that mostly irritating Kevin Costner movie to figure out "who do you cast" for the key native roles. Or they could have made the effort to find someone brand new, as the Roots people did, and make that person a star. Casting problems is not a valid excuse.
Giat argues that “there is a greater truth to be told [that] we couldn’t get across without taking some dramatic license. The fact is, if Dee Brown had written a book about the Lakota Sioux, there would have been a great deal in there about Dr. Charles Eastman.” That is a point that likely will be lost on the millions who respect Dee Brown’s fastidiousness, let alone the Sioux history.
You know, that's true. If Brown had written a book about the history of the Sioux, Eastman probably would have been at the core of that book. The thing is, THEY WEREN'T ADAPTING THE BOOK BROWN DIDN'T WRITE. THEY WERE ADAPTING THE BOOK BROWN DID WRITE. Eastman is not in that book. Eastman was not at Wounded Knee. Many of the inaccuracies in the HBO adaptation are a direct result of shoe-horning this couple into a story that was actually not about them.
The absolute arrogance of some Hollywood People is astonishing at times.
To be clear, of course there's no way to adapt any work from one format to another without doing a little bit of massaging. Events must be collapsed. Characters cut away, folded into each other. That's fine. Blade Runner does not entirely share details with Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, but the spirit of both is the same. The BMH@WK book in particular, a literal translation could not be done. Not "probably" or "most likely" could not be done, but *absolutely* could not be done. But there's enough in that book to craft a powerful, closer to truth narrative that would not have stolen agency from the people this story was about. The solution the production team chose was obscene, and the "greater truth" excuse invalid.
From earlier in that same story, Brown's daughter thinks it was all about the branding:
“But I don’t think it’s ‘Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.’ [My father] always believed that it was the title they were actually interested in and not the story. And I think that’s what happened. They bought the title.”
It is an ironic charge. After all, HBO has enjoyed great success in shepherding nonfiction work such as “Band of Brothers” to the screen. But the liberties the network took with Brown’s story do lend credence to Linda Brown’s opinion that a renowned book has been reduced to a title, a tool to corral viewers.
I had a similar thought when I finally broke down and rented I, Robot. It was an entertaining, if dumb film with lots of nifty chase scenes and man that robot was awesome and all, but the story didn't have anything to do with the source material. They wanted the title, maybe they wanted the three laws, and that's it. It was as if they took an entirely unrelated script and just plopped the title "I, Robot" on it. They wanted (needed?) the brand recognition.
This story turned up in my trolling...think it's worth sharing, though I don't have anything to say about it:
Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee introduces a range of characters, unsettling the simple innocent/guilty pairing that often stands in for intelligent discussion of Native American history. Senator Henry Dawes's character appears genuine in his desire to "civilize" and protect the Indians—insofar as his efforts do not hinder whites' settlement of the land. The Sioux protagonist, Dr. Charles Eastman, is initially repelled by his father's belief that "The Earth belongs to the white man; there is no future outside his world." But the white world treats Eastman well, lavishing him with scholarships and awards, and he becomes the native spokesman for Senator Dawes' plan to set the nomadic Sioux up as small farmers. But when Eastman takes his Harvard medical training back to the Sioux reservation, he has second thoughts. He writes to Dawes, "Measles, influenza, and whooping cough have ascended from hell all at once…Of equal consequence is the epidemic of hopelessness that has overtaken the reservation." Eastman ultimately rebels against Dawes's push for assimilation at the cost of his newfound identity as an assimilated Indian, but he remains happily married to a white woman who supports the native cause.
Even with these attempts at complexity, the film feels a lot like an after-school special. Its characters are forced to serve as archetypes, and their dialogue does double duty as an aphoristic history of the United States' conquest of the Indians.
Over at the Times, the director of the UCLA Native American Studies Center presents an OpEd that one can easily imagine having been typed in all caps the first time around:
In the wake of HBO' s disappointing and history-deranging adaptation of Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee, American Indian actors, writers, aspiring directors and producers arrive at the end of the trail for their decades-long struggle to gain a footing in Hollywood: our cause is lost in the American film and television industry.
It is now time for us to abandon our stake in the Hollywood camp, this distressed outpost, now time for us to gather on the open beach at Santa Monica and there bury in the sand our hopes for participation and inclusion, then head out of town with our heads held a high as we can hold them. We will be better off re-locating our work back to the reservations, to the tribal communities and scattered remnants of land allotments that were given to us in treaties with the United States government over a hundred years ago in the epic tragedy which Dee Brown described so vividly and thoroughly in his iconic history. And there, hopefully safe from the misbegotten creative and economic forces of the industry, we must knuckle down and produce our own films, our own television dramas, write our own accounts of our history, and present them in images that we create and that we will control. We have an audience of two million American Indians waiting.
Thing is, that doesn't work, does it? Tim Reid tried it, I don't think he was the first one, and it didn't entirely work the way he hoped, though he's not dissatisfied with what he was able to build. (I don't have time to get into it here, but if you care, do your research. At the time of launch he talked a lot all over the place about the studio and distribution system he was trying to build for black films and filmmakers. All that stuff must still be out there. I remember the unfortunate chat show interview that included Billy Dee Williams, who, to put it charitably, was not having a good day.)
Yes, it is important and *necessary* that we who are not part of the dominate culture create works to entertain and educate ourselves. One of the best things about finally getting to see Killer of Sheep a couple of months ago was the sense of comfort and familiarity that settled on us while watching. For example, couldn't help but to notice how the black people in the audience were laughing at things that completely sailed over the heads of the white people. Same with some of the interpersonal stuff. These were small things, character/setting things, but they were huge, to me and Somebody's Boy Toy, anyway. Maybe a bit of it was nostalgia? I dunno. Let's just say that every time a character took a moment for afro grooming, a quarter of the audience almost fell out of their seats.
At the same time, it is *critical* that we have access to, for lack of a better term, the Big Arena so our stories can educate and entertain those who are not like us. This is especially true if what's on deck is a work of fact. Through stories people understand that the divide of humanity is perhaps not so much the gulf they assume it to be. Through stories, you help us see. On top of that, you can't take your toys and run to another playground because the road to that 'safe space' is ENTIRELY controlled by the very people who don't quite see you, and they've got a LOT of toll booths set up along the way. The gatekeepers are the ones who MUST do better, here. They must make an effort to let other voices in. Their writers/directors/producers must *tuly* expand themselves beyond their defaults and blind spots when creating work. They must have faith that the entire white audience they're so worried about is not comprised of dribbling fearful, racist idiots (despite the occasional evidence to the contrary).
Why am I not dumping on the actors in this so-called adaptation? Actors, like Shakespeare, got bills to pay. I actually had more to say on this bit, but I cut it right before posting. Maybe I'll come back to it (if for no other reason than it provides an excuse to tell the tale of Me + A Very Awkward Conversation With A Casting Person For Beverly Hills 90210).
The point! Because of the attitudes of people like Wolf and Thayer and George and Giat and all of the other Hollywood Gatekeepers who are in a position to Make It So, but choose not to, a good chunk of what comes across our screens will always be corrupt. The result will be continued ignorance, or futile expressions of fury, or both.
Should I say futile? Is that an implied toss of the towel? Blame it on my mood. The sun will come out tomorrow and so forth.
Yes I know a writer in Hollywood is last guy on the above the line totem. But you know? He went along with it. He shaped the story that set the stage, then he went around absolutely defending the gate. He shares fault.
Jeez. I think I'll stop, now. I'll go back to reading From the Notebooks of Dr. Brain, which is an exuberant riot so far. I need the funny.
*** For native issues, the main outlets in my vast collection of news sites are Native American Times, Indian Country Today, Indianz and Windspeaker. I read a lot of news sites/papers/magazines from all over the world every day. I'm a junkie!