Native Actors Deserve to Be Seen

Julia Jones examines the importance of representation in Hollywood.

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Last spring, a controversy erupted around a film I was acting in called The Ridiculous 6. A small group of Native people involved with the production objected to aspects of the comedy and to the ways in which some of it was being filmed, and they walked off the set. I was working when they walked off but didn't know they'd left or that a media frenzy was about to ensue. A few days later, in the middle of a scene, I looked at my phone and found about 50 emails and texts from people asking if I was OK. I had no idea what they were talking about. I was great. I was having the time of my life working with an astonishingly down-to-earth, collaborative, and supportive cast and crew. I felt cared for and respected by them. But when I read some of the articles that had been sent to me, my heart sank. Although in this case I didn't feel the same way as the people who walked off, I have had that feeling before, and it's the worst.

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Since then, I have found myself in a series of discussions about race in Hollywood. Several people told me to watch Aziz Ansari's Netflix show Master of None. I read Chris Rock's essay on "Hollywood's race problem." I have spoken with white actors who have been asked to play ethnic roles and to Native people who have looked at me like I was a traitor because I was in The Ridiculous 6. These talks have made me realize that as far as race is concerned, no one really knows what's going on or how best to handle it. Not the mostly white men in the writers' rooms, or the studios trying to make a profit, or the actors trying to balance making a living without alienating their community or their sense of self.

Some light was shed at a party the other night. I met an established comedy writer who said, "I'm excited to see The Ridiculous 6, but every writers' room knows that you can't do three things: say "fag" or "retard" and write about Native Americans. I mean, what did they expect?" And I thought: That pretty much says it all. That explains why there are so few depictions of Native people in mainstream media and why the depictions that do exist tend to be limited at best and stereotypical and degrading at worst. Most of all, it exemplifies a profound sense of confusion, ignorance, and fear. No one can write truthfully from that place. Yet I don't see how to get past misrepresentations and misunderstandings without increased exposure to the mainstream. While the F- and R-words are terrible derogatory terms that cause real pain, Native Americans are a group of people who deserve to be seen.

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And then there is the guilt. Several years ago, I went to a screening of the HBO miniseries Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, a beautiful and very depressing depiction of the massacre of hundreds of Lakota people by the U.S. government in 1890. The predominantly white after-party felt like a funeral, not a movie premiere. The atmosphere was so heavy and the awkward silence so thick that I asked about it. Their response was "We all just feel so much guilt."

But guilt, like anger, doesn't get you anywhere. Finding fault won't solve the problem. It's systemic, the result of a history of genocide, marginalization, injustice, and disrespect. And because it is not often reported or represented accurately by Hollywood or in the media, mainstream America seems not to be aware of the extent of the abuse or of its lingering and very active residual effects. Just don't talk about it. 

It's systemic, the result of a history of genocide, marginalization, injustice, and disrespect.

In Chris Rock's essay on Hollywood's race problem, he writes, "You should at least be able to count on your people, and then it grows from there. If someone's people don't love them, that's a problem. No one crosses over without a base." But how do you cross over if your base is a disenfranchised population with an ongoing history of being overlooked and ignored? Native Americans are an ethnic group, but they are not treated the same as the others. Other minority groups don't have a special casting director whom you call if you need to hire them.

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There has never been a Native American female as a series regular on an American network television show. The closest was in 2003, when Sheila Tousey played Judge Danielle Larsen in ten episodes of Law and Order: SVU. I have had recurring roles on two different shows. The casting director of one of them approached me at a Christmas party and thanked me because, he said, the network had given him a gift certificate to his favorite restaurant for casting me. I took this as a compliment, until he added that the reason they were happy was because he had actually cast a Native American. In this case, the role was written as Native, but that was not essential to the plot, and her background was not mentioned in any of the episodes, just alluded to. On the other show, the character was identified as Native, and the ethnicity was essential to the plot. At my first fitting for the second show, the costumer announced that I would probably be around for a while because if they kill off any more Native actors, there won't be any left.

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There is also a substantial need for Native communities — especially the youth — to see themselves in a positive light. One of my first films was a little indie called Black Cloud, directed by Ricky Schroder. It was based on the true story of a Navajo boxer, played by Eddie Spears. This young man learns to channel his anger into fighting, and with the help of his coach, played by the late actor and activist Russell Means, he earns a spot in the Olympics. I played his girlfriend. We could not find distribution for it but were determined to screen it for Native kids on as many reservations as possible.

Eddie and Rick and Russell and I spent months traveling around the country with this film. The reaction was astounding. One night outside Tucson, Arizona, we screened it for 2,000 people on the rez. At the end of the film when Black Cloud wins, the crowd was so enthused that we had to be escorted out of the theater because the energy and emotions were so intense. I attribute this to the fact that positive, winning depictions of Natives in the media, pop culture, and film are almost nonexistent. The experience of relating to a hero was so foreign and so moving that people became hysterical. The fervor we encountered on some of those trips rivaled the intensity of the crowds I encountered at promotional events for Twilight, a cultural phenomenon and a film series I had a part in.

For as big a deal as Twilight was, one of the most meaningful aspects of being a part of those movies for me was that they featured three-dimensional Native characters in a contemporary setting and, for once, the audience was huge. They were emotionally complex roles. Totally relatable and accessible. Kids all over the world thought the wolf pack — comprised of Native shape-shifters — was cool. More than cool, girls wanted to marry them. Boys wanted to BE them. It turned the thing on its head. Kind of.

On a round of press for my first installment of the franchise, I had the opportunity to be in a highly regarded publication that I had admired for a very long time. I've had a subscription since college, and I read my mother's subscription before that. It felt like a milestone. The article featured five of us, and while we were being photographed, the journalist took us aside one or two at a time to conduct interviews. While the non-Native actors (who all played vampires) were asked questions about the appeal of the story and the rapport of the cast, the first question for me was along the lines of "It's so hard for you to get roles in Hollywood. How does it feel that you work so hard for so long and you finally get a break and it's to play a monster?" I reflexively defended my character and the author, Stephenie Meyer, but as I spoke, I was trying to figure out why she would ask me that. A wave of what seemed like embarrassment washed over her face. Later, she took me aside and apologized. I still wasn't sure what was going on, but whatever it was, it didn't feel good. The subtext felt like: You are not actually a part of this yet.

I still wasn't sure what was going on, but whatever it was, it didn't feel good. The subtext felt like: You are not actually a part of this yet.

A couple of weeks ago I went to the premiere of a movie that I was not in, but which featured a cast that was roughly half-white and half–Native American. At one point at the party, a white waitress dressed in period Native garb walked up to a Native man with her plate of hors d'oeuvres. He made a comment that she was dressed as an Indian, and she told him that he was not allowed to call her that. The correct term, she said, is Native American. He said, "But I'm the Indian." He laughed as she stared blankly back at him. This anecdote and some of the others in this essay are the weird, awkward, mystifying results of habitually pushing issues — and people — under the rug.

I don't know if all the actors who attended that event were asked to participate in the press, but the next day it appeared that only one of the several main Native actors was identified in the photos at all, while all the white actors were well documented. The reception afterward was equally divided. For the most part, there were clusters of Native people in a sea of white. My Native friends were so thrilled to have substantial roles in a movie that they didn't notice the inequity. They seemed to be on top of the world. I was simultaneously happy for them — I knew how hard they had worked, just how uphill that mountain is — and sad at the realization that, while we are looking up, there is so much further to go.

As painful and confusing as addressing this topic can be, I know the only way past is through. It's a dialogue. It's connecting, understanding, being patient, and staying open. For as many sleepless nights as I've had over the past eight months, it was better than the many years of feeling like an outcast and ignored. I'm glad it's happening. I'm even glad to be a part of it. But most important, I'm glad we're finally beginning to talk about what's really going on.

Julia Jones is an actress living in Los Angeles.

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