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.
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.
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.
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.