“for where an Indian is shut up in one place his body becomes weak”
Predictable from the very start, Woman Walks Ahead hits on the modern feminist plight of females at almost every turn, facing down bigotry and chauvinism, while remaining headstrong and unwilling to break to the norms of etiquette. Rooted in rich historical material, author Eileen Pollack recounts how the films main character, Catherine Weldon, “was one of the only white people of her time of either gender who not only had the right political view of Native American rights, but also gave her life to work for those rights.” Unfortunately, what Susanna White and Steven Knight did was reduce her legacy to this showpiece, earmarked for a Netflix release, that portrayed her as an ineffectual warm body with a crush, serving as the centerpiece for Rosamund Pike’s circle dance in Hostiles.
The story is based on the story of Weldon, who, in the film arrived at the Standing Rock Reservation (same location of the Dakota Access Pipeline Protest) in 1889 in an effort to paint the portrait (not the reason she went out there) of the great Lakota leader, Sitting Bull (Michael Greyeyes), who defeated General George Custer’s army at The Battle of the Little Bighorn on June 25, 1876, and found herself confronted with a greater mission of saving the tribal people from the government | HISTORY.
As Peter Travers (Rolling Stones) writes, the reality was much further from Chastain’s naive appearance on the reservation.
[T]he divorcée showed accompanied by her illegitimate 12-year-old son and blessed with a fierce determination, as a member of the National Indian Defense Association, to help the Lakota Sioux protect their land from federal annexation through the Dawes Act.
The movie is driven by the circumstances surrounding a treaty being negotiated (the never-mentioned Dawes Act of 1887), which would come to replace a system of reservations in favor of a system for assimilation. Stephen Pevar explains:
The purpose of the reservation system was, for the most part, to remove land from the Indians and to separate the Indians from the settlers. Reservations were usually created on lands not (yet) coveted by non-Indians. By the late 1800s, however, settlers were nearly everywhere, and Congress needed to develop a new strategy to prevent further bloodshed.
The government decided that instead of separating Indians from white society, Indians should be assimilated into white society. Assimilation of the Indians and the destruction of their reservations became the new federal goal.
The history (for more), seemingly lost on Steven Knight, was the only chance for this film to have the significance it desired. And for the most part, with a few dashing references to The Allotment Act and to The Ghost Dance, the film careens into an abysmal display of a romcom parody with one of the worst roles I’ve seen Chastain play. The writing was abysmal, which perhaps no actor could have redeemed. A strange stumble from a writer whose done very capable work with Peaky Blinders, Taboo, Eastern Promises, and Amazing Grace.
Aside the good-intentions of the role, Chastain may have only heard of the story being pitched without actually reading the contents of the script because she should have seen how cheaply created the story of Catherin Weldon turned out. In Hollywood’s forward thinking ambition, they took a story of female empowerment and transformed it into a sappy “story more palatable to lovers of romance novels.”
This is perhaps a good lesson for Hollywood that those skilled in art-making should stay away from politics before they make a mess of both. I congratulate the critics in collectively managing to incorporate the “white savior” narrative into their reviews and holding back on giving this mess a FRESH rating. Unlike Susan Wloszczyna (Roger Ebert), I have no qualms dismissing outright this “well-intentioned stumble.”
- If people are interested in keeping tabs on the current landscape of American-Indian Law, I recommend the Turtle Talk blog at Michigan State University.