BY ESTHER J. CEPEDA, Washington Post Writers Group
CHICAGO -- It’s hard to get upset at Adam Sandler for inanity, recklessness or disrespect. He’s never promised America anything more than to be a jester for our amusement, a few hours at a time.
This is why it’s almost beside the point to even mention Sandler in a discussion about whether his upcoming Netflix film “The Ridiculous Six” stands as a turning point for the portrayal of Native Americans in Hollywood.
Still, Sandler unwittingly plays a starring role in this incident. The film, which Netflix describes as “a broad satire of Western movies and the stereotypes they popularized, featuring a diverse cast that is not only part of -- but in on -- the joke,” had bits in it so repulsive, such as crude and vulgar “Indian” names as well as disgusting uses of Native-themed props, that several American Indian actors quit the production.
According to The Associated Press, nine Native American actors and a Native American consultant walked off the set last week after producers told the group to leave if they felt offended because there would be no script changes.
It’s difficult to explain how hard this act of defiance must have been for these actors.
They walked away from the job’s pay and risk being blacklisted in Hollywood. Actor David Hill, a Choctaw, told The Native Trailblazers Radio Show: “Some didn’t leave but my heart goes out to them because I know they wanted to. Some elder ladies there were almost in tears over this because ... they wanted to be in a movie, and they need the money to take care of their families.”
Plus, these actors had to have known they were going to get it from all sides.
And so they have.
While there has been positive outpouring about the matter on various social media platforms, others took the actors to task.
Native American filmmaker Sterlin Harjo wrote on Twitter: “Actors. Quit taking roles in bull---- native movies. They’ve never got it right. Expect them to now? Be accountable like the rest of us.”
Actor Bonifacio Gurule told an Albuquerque TV station that the majority of Native Americans stayed on the set and that those who exited the film should “lighten up. ... It’s a comedy, not a documentary.”
Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly was bashed after issuing a statement that said, in part, “Our Native American culture and tradition is no joking matter. I applaud these Navajo actors for their courage and conviction to walk off the set in protest. ... Native people have dealt with negative stereotypes on film for too long. Enough is enough.” Shelly, you see, has been criticized for attending a game with the owner of the Washington NFL franchise and supporting its controversial team name in opposition to the formal stance of the Navajo Nation Council.
In terms of accountability, there is some -- The Navajo Nation has an Office of Broadcast Services that helps ensure cultural accuracy in scripts for films and commercials produced on the Nation. No stereotypical and racially discriminatory characterizations are allowed to be filmed on Navajo land.
But off that land -- in this case the Sandler film was being shot in Santa Fe, New Mexico -- it is open season. Which brings us to the question of whether this small insurrection was a game-changer, or whether hurtful and stereotypical portrayals of Native Americans will continue to be the norm in Hollywood.
So far, Rolling Stone reports, a producer promised the cast that a disclaimer at the end of the movie would reiterate that Sandler’s movie is not an accurate portrayal of Native American culture.
Understatement of the year.
The truth is that the 500-nation Native American culture is richly diverse -- with different regional customs and beliefs -- and will never be accurately portrayed in the media until Native Americans are integral parts of the production and creative teams that tell stories about individuals, not a monolithic Indian people.
There will probably always be ridiculous portrayals of Native American culture in entertainment, but for some, this felt like a precedent.
Maybe this headline-grabbing Native American uprising will end up making filmmakers think twice next time -- even for a fleeting moment. Or maybe inspire more Native American actors to bypass Hollywood and start creating and promoting their own authentic content.
This would be, at least, a start.
Esther J. Cepeda is a Nationally Syndicated Columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group.
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