LFF 2021 #6: Wild Indian (US-France 2021)

Michael Greyeyes as Makwa/Michael

I think I chose this screening for the same reasons that I chose Queen of Glory. That film was made by a Ghanian-American and Wild Indian was made by a Native American filmmaker. Both films are début features and there are some similarities in two relatively short features which perhaps struggle to make exactly the film they envisaged. Partly this may be because of budget restrictions, which inevitably mean a relatively short shoot (only 17 days for Wild Indian) and partly just that making your first feature is particularly difficult. But both films are blessed with strong central performances and they tell tales we haven’t seen before, at least in these distinctive cultural contexts.

Chaske Spencer as Teddo

Writer-director Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr told us in the Q&A that his film had been seven years in the making and the narrative had  slowly transformed over time. In the version he finally filmed, a prologue presents an Ojibwe man suffering from smallpox at some indeterminate point in history and moving westward. We then meet two characters who are high school students in the 1980s. The school appears to have a strong church connection. Whether all the students are from reservations isn’t clear. Makwa and Teddo are close friends. Makwa in particular has a difficult time at home. The two become involved in a violent incident and the narrative moves forward to 2019. A tall and lean man is practising his golf swing. It’s California and eventually we will realise that this is Makwa who has changed his name to Michael and has become successful in some form of profitable business. Meanwhile back in the Mid-West, Teddo is being released from prison. What happened back in 1988 will now come back to confront both men. I won’t spoil the narrative further, except to note that the film ends with a character on the beach in California, looking out to sea. It’s a scene familiar from many Hollywood narratives but not usually one with Native Americans as central characters. There is also an epilogue involving the man with smallpox discovering a dead man, another Native American.

The film has been promoted as a thriller and it does its job efficiently, helped by the terrific performances of the four actors who play the younger and older versions of Makwa (Phoenix Wilson and Michael Greyeyes) and Teddo (Julian Gopal and Chaske Spencer). The casting delivers an authenticity element in that Wilson and Lisa Cromarty (who plays Reddo’s sister) are Canadian actors from the family of First Nations, the Anishinaabe which includes the Ojibwe of Wisconsin, the director’s home band. Michael Greyeyes is a leading First Nations actor from the Cree Nation in Saskatchewan. He also appears in Jimmy P. (US-France 2013). That film too, though set in the US, cast Canadian First Nations actors in several roles. Indigenous North Americans are not bound by colonial borders but the US and Canada have different policies towards indigenous cultures. Does this affect the development of actors? The production finally shot the reservation scenes in Oklahoma which provided support. Director Mitchell Corbine suggests that the look of the Oklahoma locations has some resemblance to Wisconsin. I understand that there are also Anishinaabe in Oklahoma. Chaske Spencer is also seen as a Native American actor, born in Oklahoma. I’m not sure about Julian Gopal.

The priest lectures students on the story of Cain and Abel

The prologue introduces the idea of the fate of indigenous peoples during the colonisation of North America. The ‘choice’ has always been to remain within the family and the band or to assimilate with the white majority. Of course, it was not usually a choice at all. Assimilation was forced on many as the recent outrage at the history of the Canadian residential school deaths attests. In Wild Indian, however, the two central characters take different steps following the events at school in the 1980s. We do learn something about what happened to Teddo but frustratingly not how Makwa became Michael. The repeated narrative is about the difficulty of surviving life on the reservation versus the material wealth offered by assimilation. Mitchell Corbine explores this narrative dichotomy with just two scenes that present white authority figures passing judgement. One is the priest lecturing the high school students about Cain and Abel and the other shows the local DA being dismissive about the re-opening of the investigation of the original violent incident involving Makwa and Teddo. Several of the reviewers who generally praise the film want to know much more about the two central characters. I can understand this but I think I like the more oblique take on the characters’ life choices. The film works as a crime thriller but there is enough to challenge us to think about the politics.

Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr

I’ve listed the film has having French involvement and this comes from the participation of the French company Logical Pictures Group which operates from Paris and Los Angeles. The group’s website covers its associates and on one of them, Loveboat, there is a profile of Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr and a chance to watch his two earlier short films, Shinaab (2017) and Shinaab Part 2 (2019) which explore the ‘two paths’ concept at the centre of the struggle for identity for a young Anishinaabe man. The director was selected by Variety as one of its 10 Directors to watch for 2021. There is certainly enough in the two shorts and Wild Indian to make me look out for his future projects.

Wild Indian has been listed as an acquisition by Vertigo Releasing for the UK, so look out for it in cinemas or on download in the coming months. I’ve not included a trailer here as all the available ones give away too much of the plot.

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