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maryann johanson | #BlackLivesMatter

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (review)

American Shame

The summer television season is about to start, and here we go with an onslaught of asinine reality game shows and idiotic sitcoms. But thank god for HBO, which doesn’t turn off its brain for the warmer months. It starts off its summer season with the smart, powerful, heartbreaking original movie Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, debuting somewhat defiantly today, the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, as if to kick us all in the ass with its bold depth, relevance, and conviction.
If you can stand a devastating indictment of how the Native Americans were thoroughly fucked over by the European settlers on their land, and you can’t bother yourself with Dee Brown’s book of the same name, then this is an excellent, searingly unsentimental second best. Covering only a slice of the history the book ranges over, from the battle of Little Big Horn to the murder of Sitting Bull, the film — from director Yves Simoneau (Nuremberg) — nevertheless encompasses more than enough lying and cheating and broken treaties on the part of the U.S. government. And that’s only the least of it.

The worst of it are the attitudes of the white men in charge, like President Ulysses Grant (played, oh ho!, by actor-turned-right-wing-politician-turned-actor-maybe-about-to-turn-right-wing-presidential candidate Fred Thompson), ostensibly a friend to the red man, who avers that “setting the Indian on the course to civilization best ensures his survival” and that “there’s no saving the Sioux unless we compel them to give up their way of life and settle on the reservation.” Entire anthropological, sociological, and political careers have been expended on unraveling the bigotry involved in statements like those, so there’s no point in my going into them again. Clearly, though, horrific ironies about burning villages to save villages were not inventions of the 20th century. Though perhaps they are uniquely American ironies, and the obvious parallels to current American endeavors involving burning villages — or nations — in order to save them are not entirely absent: “What would you have us do, Senator?” the anti-Indian General Sherman (Colm Feore [The Exorcism of Emily Rose], who’s so good at being so loathsome onscreen) sneers at the pro-Indian politician Henry Dawes (Aidan Quinn: Nine Lives). “Cut and run?”

But Wounded Knee is a movie not just of this time but of that one, too, of the late 18th century, of the slow but inexorable holocaust of the Native Americans, driven off lands sacred to them, victims of their own attempts to appease the strange white men who think they can “own” the earth. We don’t see the first treaty between European and Indian here, but we see the enraging results: from the moment the Native Americans gave an inch, they were lost when even honorable men, like Dawes, were blindered by their own refusal to see any worth in Native cultures. And that’s represented here in the comparably smaller but distressingly intimate tragedy of Charles Eastman, a Sioux taken from tribal life as an preadolescent and raised in the culture of the European settlers back East, only to return to the reservation as a doctor and ambassador for assimilation. The wonderful Adam Beach (Flags of Our Fathers) is at his best yet as a man who realizes too late how he has been used by his white benefactors as a tool in the destruction of his own people.

The disgrace and the disaster plays out in tiny moments — the young Charles’s braids being cut off; the desperation of the men on the reservation for the drop of alcohol in a bottle of cod liver oil. But the impact is overwhelming. It’s more than enough to make any conscientious American ashamed of the horrors that have been committed in the name of our freedom and values.

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MPAA: rated TV-14

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