A Story of Becoming Indigenous: A Movie Review of “The Activist” (2013)
It’s a rare occurrence when you have a Hollywood movie that revolves around Indigenous struggle. The Activist, a movie directed by Cyril Morin, is set in 1973 South Dakota, during what has been known as the Wounded Knee siege/incident/insurrection, an armed stand-off between Dakota warriors (along with many allies and the American Indian Movement [AIM]) and the U.S. military. The movie revolves around two men who are arrested for their involvement in the stand-off, an Indigenous man named Bud and a White lawyer who had married Bud’s cousin, presumably ‘The Activist’ that the movie is named after.
Wounded Knee is one of those moments that White America likes to forget, both the original massacre that made the site so significant in the first place (123 years today) and also the stand-off that the movie centers. Morin likes films about stories that ‘seem to be forgotten’ and should probably be applauded for making at least a few people head to Wikipedia to look up what Wounded Knee was all about. But, let’s be real, there’s enough White people out there trying to save Indigenous people by highlighting their pain and ‘telling their stories’ for them, and they’re all trying to get the applause, some of them even using Pine Ridge itself (the rez where Wounded Knee is). This movie, unfortunately, is yet another case of the White savior complex that plagues Hollywood, and the Whitestream media at large, when they attempt to portray Indigenous existence.
‘The Activist’ and main character in the movie is a White lawyer, Marvin Brown. He married an Indigenous woman, Anna, who has died. His love for her (and marriage through a Dakota ceremony) makes him “have Indian blood, she’s in my veins, she’s in my soul.” Now, I’m not the one to take on the complicated mess that colonialism wrought around belonging and identity in Indigenous communities (many Indigenous scholars have), and, as Ana’s cousin Bud highlights, the Dakota marriage ceremony is official (and the right of sovereign nations, an important part of belonging, etc), Marvin is part of the family. But let’s focus elsewhere and recognize something: settler colonialism needs both Indigenous erasure and settler replacement. That an Indigenous woman is murdered for a White man to ‘become Indian’ and take her place in the struggle (as the movie highlights later is the case) is both problematic and violent in light of settler colonialism and the ongoing erasure and murder of Indigenous women that feeds it. This is beyond the typical, “Hollywood can’t make a film about Indigenous people without casting the hero and main character as White” (which is true) but a story of violent erasure and genocide. This pattern continues as we meet the other man that Anna loved, another (unidentified but phenotypically) White man, who tells our Activist that, after a story about her activism, “She made me feel for the very first time like I was Native American.” In this, they are brought together – made Indian from her struggle, love, and death – from her very absence that infuses the veins. Not only is Marvin ‘The Activist’, making Bud a mere sidekick, a non-activist, or just ‘naturally’ engaged in activism, but he can’t escape his Whiteness – he is constantly the ‘trusted’ and ‘peaceful’ one, allowed out of his cell at times, while the movie pushes Bud as ‘savage’ and down with violence and chaos, drawing again on old tropes. Marvin’s becoming (through ‘blood’, not of struggle or other means) Indigenous allows him, as a White man, to take center stage in a movie that uses Indigenous struggle as a mere backdrop for tired colonial tropes.
The protagonists in the film, and only other main characters aside from Bud and The Activist, are the two (White) sheriffs who have arrested them and take turns guarding the small station that houses their cells. One is a racist, sometimes drunk, violent Vietnam vet who beats a Black prisoner senseless and is spoiling for a fight with Bud. The other is an elderly man whose wife is withering away on her deathbed, and who ‘has learned a lot about the injustices’ against Indigenous people through the stand-off. He is the sympathizer and kind ‘helper’; it gives him power to be able to help the prisoners, a power that is denied him with his dying wife. He is the ‘kind White’ who just needed to be educated to get him to side with the struggle. The other sheriff is the unruly ‘bad apple’, the unrepentant racist. This partnership plays on the classic White tropes of racism, that most White people participate in racism because they don’t know better and all we have to do is educate them. The ‘real’ racists are rare ‘bad apples’ who are violent, drunks, and the brutish exception to genteel White society. Except the kind sheriff still lives on Indigenous land, follows orders from (and votes for) a colonial government, etc etc etc. Racism works because of the ‘kind’ racists who just want to keep the system the way it is, who won’t rock the boat but have lots of empathy for the people they help to oppress. Tropes like this place settler colonialism and racism as ‘deviants’ to the system rather than as the system (which they are).
In sum: we have a savage Indian warrior and a (dead) Indian princess, the only two Indigenous characters (one dead) - in a film supposedly telling ‘forgotten’ Indigenous history - battling the one bad racist. I won’t spoil the end, in case you enjoy watching White settler colonial dramas masquerading as politically conscious movies, but The Activist is not a movie about Indigenous struggle; rather, it is one that uses the backdrop (and it really is little more than news reports in the background) of the Indigenous struggle at Wounded Knee to mask tired colonial narratives of disappearing Indians and settler replacement through White heroes who are down with the struggle as long as they get to become Indian. As Marvin tells his story: as a kid he ‘always wanted to be Geronimo or Sitting Bull’ when they played Cowboys and Indians. The movie is mired in the predictability of White settler colonial narratives, the same predictability of the game, Cowboys and Indians: The Indians always lose out to the White heroes, one way or another.
P.S. This is why there is the need for Indigenous filmmakers, like Alanis Obomsawin. If you'd like to watch a film (albeit, not Hollywood) actually about Indigenous struggle, check out her classic, Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance.