The Revenant

The Revenant ★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

Q. Why did the Native son need to die?
A. Because the white man needs drama.

Q. Why did the Native wife need to die?
A. Because the white man needs drama. And an exotic dream guide.

Q. Why did the cute Native who catches snowflakes on his tongue need to die?
A. Because the bad guys need to be real bad and real racist because the sensitive white man needs drama.

Q. Why did the Natives attack the injured, helpless, solitary white man even though they need information about a lost daughter he might (probably does) have?
A. Because the white man needs drama.

Q. Why did the Native daughter need to be raped?
A. Because the white man must rescue her, so he can be a good guy. And so the Natives will owe him one, and he can have a happy ending.

. . .

I have many more problems than this with the film, but this problem rises to the top for me, particularly in a year when, once again, as they say, OscarsSoWhite. I believe everyone involved in this film probably has their hearts in the right place. (Di Caprio certainly seemed to at the Golden Globes, with the plea that "it's time we heard [the] voice of the indigenous peoples around the world.") Probably they believe that in giving so much (read: some) screen time to any kind of Native presence earns them some sensitivity stars. But presence, even the presence of "good" Native characters, can be more problematic than their absence, as discouraging as that pretty constant absence is in the usual cinematic offerings.

As a beginning to my American Literature class this quarter, my class watched an episode of We Shall Remain. ( ) It's a PBS film series. And there's nothing much to recommend about the series, from a filmmaking perspective. Perhaps even giving my students some general historical introduction to read would have been more informative. But the effort of the series is the kind of corrective we need: North American history through a Native lens, not a white one. Our history - our American story as we tell it - rarely begins further back than the Mayflower, and such a story, which weaves together the most basic notions of our American identity, told to children from kindergarten and up, matters. It matters who tells it. It matters from whose perspective we're looking.

The Revenant is only a story. But stories matter. Maybe especially those stories which are launched into public discussion around Oscar time. This story is not a Native story. And, of course, there are still white stories that need to be told. But white stories that use Native bodies as props for their own purposes - however floaty and noble or beautifully exotic and magical those bodies are - are surely just as imperialistic as the stories that demonized such bodies as a justification for a land grab.

Watching The Revenant, I could not help but hear echoes of Samuel de Champlain's "Voyages of the Sieur de Champlain" in which the 17th century French royal geographer to North America describes his adventures among the "sauvages," while on expedition up the Saint Lawrence river. Shrewdly allying himself with and attaching himself to a party of Algonquins and Hurons, he witnesses and participates in a battle between "our Indians," as he calls them, and the Iroquois. His narrative is a tonal hodge-podge of patronizing admiration; the Native groups had, he notes, "a gravity and calm which I admired," while he notes, simultaneously, relative to the Algonquin and Huron, "I was very sorry they could not understand me, so that I might direct their method of attacking the enemy, all of whom undoubtedly we should thus defeat; but there was no help for it, and I was very glad to show them, as soon as the engagement began, the courage and readiness which were in me." In other words, though just along for the ride in this particular battle, which stems from a complex enemy relationship between the Algonquin and Iroquois, and though challenged by translation issues, he feels perfectly sure ought to be managing the whole campaign.

After defeating the unprepared and ill-equipped Iroquois, Champlain, with a great deal of relish, describes how the Algonquin and Huron torture their Iroquois prisoner of war. When they ask him to join in their activities himself, he generously and chidingly "point[s] out to them that we did not commit such cruelties, but that we kill people outright."

As he ends the narrative and his travels with "his Indians," Champlain writes, "So we all separated with great protestations of mutual friendship, and they asked me if I would not go to their country, and aid them continually like a brother. I promised them I would."

Having earlier learned from them that their land contained, "beautiful valleys and fields rich in corn . . . along with other products in abundance," of course, Champlain later did indeed go, along with many others.

Champlain's story, full of such descriptive detail about the way the Algonquin and Huron torture their Iroquois POW, full of self-congratulation and patronizing commentary about his Native companions . . . well, I'm trying to figure out the essential difference between it and The Revenant.

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