From the very beginning of WILD INDIAN, we are introduced to the generational trauma and genocidal violence that the European settlers and the government and citizens of the United States committed against the Native Americans of North America. It starts with an image of a Native man whose face is covered with smallpox pustules. You may or may not have heard of one of the earliest forms of biological warfare that was thought of by Lord Jeffrey Amherst, namely giving blankets and other items used by smallpox victims to spread the disease to the indigenous tribes. The infamous smallpox blankets. Of course, many white historians are quick to voice doubts about whether or not blankets could have spread the disease. However, we now know that the COVID-19 virus can last for days on many different surfaces and spread through contact. In fact, the virus can remain active for two days on cloth and be released into their air when the cloth is shaken. Whether or not this plan was enacted or if it was successful, the fact remains that the European settlers planned to do it. Above everything else, the mere presence of the colonizers spread dangerous diseases like the flu and smallpox which killed millions of Native people who didn’t have immune systems that were able to fight the disease. By the time the colonizers were ready to conquer through war, most of the millions of Indigenous people had already died.
WILD INDIAN turns from the past to the story of two young Anishinaabe boys, Makwa (Phoenix Wilson) and Teddo (Julian Gopal) in the 1980s. They are friends who are like brothers on the Rez. Both are unhappy. Makwa is abused daily at school and home and finally can take no more. The result is a terrible crime that affects each of the boys in different ways. They grow up and the story goes to the present day.
Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr. is the writer and director of the film which stars Michael Greyeyes as Makwa/Michael Peterson and Chaske Spencer as Teddo. Jesse Eisenberg plays Jerry, one of Michael’s toadies at the company where he works as a successful businessman. Kate Bosworth plays his wife and former stripper, Greta. Michael has taken his pain and resentment and hardened into a shell of a man who sets aside who he is to succeed in the golden land of California. One of the most important things about the film and its story is that the film is mainstream and, unlike a lot of mainstream films that are ostensibly about Natives, it is completely and 100% about the Native people, right up to the point where the biggest names in the movie are subordinate characters to the Native leads. It’s an amazing thing to see. WILD INDIAN is a drama where Indigenous actors are not characters on the sidelines in their own story. Too many times, Native actors have been forced to be supporting characters in their own historical narrative and forced to look to white actors as the leads.
Michael Greyeyes gives a stoic performance with a raging storm of resentment and guilt buried beneath it. His face is beautiful and tragic with all that it has penned up inside. You feel that he cannot feel for anyone. He cannot allow himself to do so and may not even know how. Everything is about that calm surface, a reclaiming of that Indigenous image most films use as a stock character. A shorthand for a Native man’s humanity because white writers couldn’t be bothered to give Indigenous characters respect. The “wild Indian” and the “noble savage”. Chaske Spencer is scarred by the crime and filled with a deep hurt that he can no longer contain. It blasts out of his eyes. The film has a couple of devastating shots of them. I have never seen an actor show that level of rage fueled by such a deep sorrow. Many films are beautiful and filled with great cinematography, effects, and lighting, but this is the beauty of the human face, the human soul. I can pay Spencer the rare compliment of saying that he is his own special effect. I’ll never forget those eyes.
WILD INDIAN is a virtuoso achievement filled with the human spirit in all its beauty and ugliness. A serious Native American film that is every bit the equal of not only any great Indigenous film, but the better of many mainstream films that use Native actors as props. Finally, like in Blood Quantum, Natives are the story. The wonderful Blood Quantum was a zombie horror survival film about Natives. Yes, Michael Greyeyes is also in Blood Quantum. Native actors and stories are the film’s focus and the white mainstream actors are the supporting characters. WILD INDIAN is a Native film that refuses to bow to Colonial power and rips that power from the Colonizers fear paralyzed hands and says, “No more.”
WILD INDIAN had its world premiere on January 30, at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.