It’s only been a few weeks, but here we go again. J.K. Rowling’s upcoming film “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” pilfers “indigenous magic” to the exclusion of all Native participation. Rowling is known for her openness to fan questions but, strangely, not this time – not for a bunch of Redskins. DC Comics (Vertigo) and WGN America are also plowing ahead with “SCALPED,” a live version of their graphic novel (authored by non-Natives) set on an Indian Reservation. There is no indication that Natives will participate in adapting/writing, directing, or producing the show. Haven’t these productions gotten the note yet that diversity is about inclusion and not about hiring a few token darkies to prance around on camera? Actually, none of this is a surprise. “Oscars So White,” J.K. Rowling, and “SCALPED” are all indicative of the artful systemic oppression of American Indians.
Mainstream film, television, and theater are the stories our nation tells about itself. They shape the ways we see ourselves, the ways we see others, and the ways others see us. These productions tell us who is valued in our society and who is not. These media events are economic and political forces. The people pegged to create and control these stories is a matter of Civil Rights, Human Rights, and social justice.
Hollywood’s film industry hauled in $38 billion dollars in 2015, television nabbed around $190 billion, and Broadway’s booty alone (not counting national tours, Off-Broadway, and regional theater) was $1.35 billion. Together, these industries grossed over $230 billion — nearly a quarter of a trillion dollars — and constituted our nation’s 2nd largest export. This does not include new revenue from online media cash cows Amazon, Hulu, Netflix, and Youtube. If Native Americans were not erased from these productions and participated in this industry in a way that is reflective of our population, American Indians would have generated $5 billion dollars from mainstream film, television, and theater production. This breaks down to nearly $10 million dollars for each one of our more than 500 federally recognized tribes. These flicks are not frivolous entertainment. They impact our economy, education systems, laws, medical fields, politics, and criminal justice system.
Yet Hollywood casting directors and studio executives reject diversity, slander college educations, and turn their media circuses into high school popularity contests. They convince themselves, and the public, that only white celebrities bring in large audiences. Then they use this deception to disqualify minority participation even though several academic studies disprove the myth that “celebrity star power” draws audiences. Powerful talent agencies conjure up false worth for their A-List clients in order to package multimillion dollar deals of trendy actors, directors, producers, and writers – contracts notably void of dark skin people. So what actually does increase ticket sales? Hard working trained individuals solving straight-forward questions about character and story.
Students invest thousands of dollars in tuition believing that education will level the employment playing field. However, the entertainment industry slyly sabotages the value of college degrees in film, television, and theater production. In “The Hollywood Assistants Handbook,” former studio chair Hillary Stamm and Brown University alumni Peter Nowalk write, “Movie stars often become movies stars not because they trained at Juilliard, but because they look like Demi Moore. A movie’s success is judged by box office, not by its review in ‘The New Yorker’.” This smug theory is disproved by rosters full of trained artists crafting shows like “Game of Thrones,” “The Walking Dead,” “The Lord of the Rings Trilogy,” “The Hobbit,” and Broadway’s smash-hit hip-hop musical “Hamilton.” Still, America believes that such college degrees are foolish art study. Universities cut programs, eliminate graduates, and further diminish the value of higher education credentials. The entertainment industry loves this. Casting directors, studio executives, and talent agencies now get a free pass to reject qualified minority applicants. They turn to cronyism and nepotism to hire family/friends while decreeing a lack of skilled minority storytellers. Yep, circular reasoning at its finest.
Hiring blitzes and diversity initiatives are distractions, standard operating procedure, intended to smooth over the entertainment industry’s discrimination controversy – to make it all go away like yesterday’s trending topic.
In the 1990s, a “Native American Renaissance” was proclaimed with “Dances with Wolves,” “Thunderheart,” and two “Gerominos” (movie & tv show). Then came “Walker Texas Ranger” and the stage musical “Black Elk Speaks.” It all felt so good, and it culminated with Sundance’s “Smoke Signals” — an ironically apropos title that summarizes Hollywood’s sleight-of-hand diversion. Declaring a new “Native Renaissance” every few years became a popular, if not broken-record, empty boast.
The result of this hype? According to recent studies by UCLA and USC – there is a current system-wide eradication of American Indians.
Threats of an NAACP boycott, also in the 1990s, forced the studios to launch “Diversity Initiatives” to pacify minority outcry. These sham initiatives were never intended to increase racial minority inclusion. They were compromises to preserve cash flows. Twenty years later, nothing has improved. Hollywood retains its power through segregated work environments and, although minorities buy more media content, executives scrap projects that do not align with their racial bias. The studios reject better, more inclusive, business models and only greenlight stories that elevate themselves and their company values above all others. In studio boardrooms, minority employees either learn to keep their mouths shut and conform to these values, or else face oblivion.
For Native Americans, the Diversity Initiatives disguised the same systemic oppression that exiled them to the fringes of society. “Native Programs” – like those at the Joseph Papp Public Theater, the Public Broadcasting Service, and the Sundance Film Festival – all claimed to benefit Indians. What they really did, however, was cast indigenous people as tragic victims. These insincere programs reduced and segregated Natives away from Main Street luxury venues and VIP Hollywood players. They have all failed to create a sustained indigenous presence.
As resources dry up and competition increases, American Indian film/tv producers must pander to Diversity Initiative stereotypes, crawling on their knees for financial support, theatrical distribution, and corporate marketing. They are forced to prove their love for studio prejudice by embracing political agendas that view them as inferior. Natives stroke Hollywood hoping that the entertainment industry’s altruistic love will spurt forth uncontrollably. Undeterred, and ignoring their failed track records, the Diversity Initiatives continue to dictate worn-out ideas of Native American identity. Shucking-and-jiving for this empty bleeding-heart support, American Indians learn to suppress themselves in the futile hope of forward progress.
Tribes refrain from criticizing the entertainment industry swayed by sentiments like, “Don’t you ‘Indians’ have more important things to worry about!?” Amateur Native actors, duped into believing they are on the verge of super-stardom, eagerly “Play Indian” for Hollywood cameras. In this hiring frenzy, “Indian Consultants” peddle themselves as cultural experts cozying up to studio executives and reassuring them that their pan-Indian stereotypes are accurate and authentic. The “Indian Consultants” do the producers’ dirty work – 1) Bring in only obedient Indians; and 2) Silence protesters.
“Diversity Initiatives” have failed, an American Indian Renaissance is a myth, and decades of “Playing Indian” for studio executives has gotten us nowhere … but, hey, can you hear it? Somewhere some news organization is heralding the birth of a new “Native Renaissance” … sigh.
Hollywood won’t invest in Native America. Likewise, Native America won’t invest in Native America. Denial exists on both sides. Hollywood fantasies fixate on simpler times when “Indians” were strong and unaffected by forced cultural assimilation and government hypocrisy. American Indians ignore their lack of participation in the $230 billion dollar entertainment industry while parading around for Hollywood cameras in ridiculous “authentic” costumes. Tribal leaders adopt celebrities, directors and producers become honorary tribal members, and journalists herald a new “Native American Renaissance” for the umpteenth time.
It all comes so easy – Indians don’t need to be trained actors, directors, producers, or writers. Hollywood just shows up with its checkbook and at that moment, right out in the open, the erasure of Native America begins and ends. The studios pose for selfies with the Indian Extras, tell their stories, but never ever partner with the tribes as equals.
“Indian Extras,” whose best attributes are their long hair and high cheekbones, are manipulated with false hopes of “American Idol: Discovered-At-The-Soda-Shop” celebrity. Acting like tourists, less than amateurs, they have no professional stake in the multibillion dollar industry surrounding them. Everything is Disneyland and Universal Studios wrapped into one. They get a $75 paycheck and a chance to observe celebrity life close up, but never a legitimate shot at a career. The political power of mainstream film, television, and theater production never enters their minds. Dressed in corny Redface, they are cut off from access, equality, and inclusion.
Every once in a blood moon, the entertainment industry supports a Native authored production (the Sundance Film Festival’s “Smoke Signals” was 20-years-ago), but non-Natives are brought in to dominate these casts and crews. Like most minority productions, Hollywood studio executives hire their familiar cohorts and effectively minimize ethnic participation. Matt Damon told filmmaker Effie Brown on HBO’s Project Greenlight, “When you’re talking about diversity, you do it in the casting of the film, not the casting of the [show’s decision makers].” Studios run to their executive rolodex, make quick “pragmatic” staffing decisions, and give paid jobs to friends and family. Cronyism, nepotism, and structural racism win out … again.
The tragic irony of Hollywood’s erasure of American Indians is that the studios could actually benefit from the funds and tax incentives earmarked for these sovereign nations. All that is required is for the studios to treat federally recognized tribes, and their enrolled members, as equals. Media companies could access the same benefits that enable tribal casinos. They could achieve the same success. In addition to these unique tribal tax structures, decades-old programs exist to financially support cultural preservation, employment training, and business development. However, casting directors, talent agents, and unions (SAG-AFTRA, WGA, DGA) disregard the special political status of federally recognized tribes, as well as their hiring privileges, because they want their non-Native celebrities to whitewash Indian stories as bait for The Academy Awards (i.e. Leonardo DiCaprio, Kevin Costner) or for franchise cartoons (i.e. Rooney Mara, Moon Bloodgood, Johnny Depp, Taylor Lautner, Booboo Stewart).
Tribal hiring privileges are no different from those used by states like Louisiana, Michigan, and New Mexico who already require them of Hollywood. Federal employment protections granted to tribal members could also eliminate the professional racist practice of wearing Redface. After all, if American Indian actors must adhere to the entertainment industry’s union rules, why shouldn’t the unions, agents, casting directors, and studios adhere to tribal sovereignty rights?
Myrton Running Wolf is an enrolled Blackfeet Indian from Browning, Montana. He holds masters degrees from the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts and Tisch School of the Arts at NYU as well as a Ph.D. from Stanford University. On the professional side, he worked in Production Management at Disney ABC Television Studios and, as a performer, appeared in several feature films, network television and live theater productions.