Monday, January 14, 2019

Michael Greyeyes’ Latest Film Provides a “New Understanding of How History Repeats”

Above: Michael Greyeyes as Sitting Bull and Jessica Chastain as Catherine Weldon in the film Woman Walks Ahead.

I watched on Amazon Prime today a film I'd long wanted to see: Susanna White's 2017 biographical drama, Woman Walks Ahead. (You may recall I wrote about this film back in October of 2017.)

A major reason for my interest in this film is that it features an artist I greatly admire and respect: indigenous actor and dancer Michael Greyeyes (right). Michael has a prominent role in Woman Walk Ahead, playing Tȟatȟáŋka Íyotake (also known as Sitting Bull), the Hunkpapa Lakota leader who in the late 1800s led his people during years of resistance to United States government policies.

Interestingly, in the years that Woman Walks Ahead is set, much of this resistance took place on and around the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota, the same location where, at the time of Woman Walks Ahead's filming, a groundswell of protest over the building of a new pipeline carrying “fracked” oil from the massive Bakken oil field was making international news.

Left: Protesters being tear-gassed by police – Standing Rock, November 2, 2016. (Photo: Johnny Dangers)

Woman Walks Ahead is based on the true story of Catherine Weldon, the widowed Brooklyn artist who in June 1889 traveled to the Dakota Territory to paint a portrait of Sitting Bull. She soon became embroiled in the Lakota peoples’ struggle over the rights to their land. Jessica Chastain plays Weldon. The film also features Sam Rockwell, Ciarán Hinds, Chaske Spencer, and Bill Camp.

The film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 10, 2017. Shortly after, A24 and DirecTV Cinema acquired distribution rights to the film. Its U.S. premiere was at the Tribeca Film Festival last April, followed by a limited release on June 29, 2018

Since then, it has garnered what you could call average reviews. On Metacritic, for instance, which assigns a rating to reviews, Woman Walks Ahead has a weighted average score of 51 out of 100, based on 19 critics. A common critique is that it is yet another film about Native Americans from the point of view of a white protagonist. (For more on this, see the comments by Caroline Cao towards the end of this post.)

Despite the film's mixed reviews, Michael Greyeyes received critical acclaim for his portrayal of Sitting Bull. The New York Times critic Jeannette Catsoulis calls his performance "a miracle of intelligence and dignity". contributor Susan Wloszczyna also offers praise, noting the Greyeyes portrayal is "the most subtle, soulful, and believable." Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Times acknowledges that "[i]nhabiting the role of an icon of Native American resistance is no small feat, but Greyeyes, a Canadian actor of Plains Cree descent, draws you in with his wry wit and quiet gravity."

Above: Michael Greyeyes and Jessica Chastain
on the set of Woman Walks Ahead.

Michael Greyeyes is not unfamiliar with portraying famous historical figures. In 2009 he played Shawnee leader Tecumseh in the award-winning PBS series We Shall Remain, while in 1996 he played the title role in John Irvin's TV movie Crazy Horse (left). (For more about this film and the Oglala Lakota warrior and mystic Crazy Horse, click here, here, and here.) The events of Woman Walks Ahead take place around twelve years after the murder of Crazy Horse.

Back in November 2016, Greyeyes, in the CBC News story below, shared his hopes that in watching Woman Walks Ahead, audiences will learn about indigenous rights and the power of those who resist.

Michael Greyeyes says his role as Sitting Bull in the upcoming film Woman Walks Ahead is the most significant and important artistic endeavour he has undertaken.

"The humanity of Sitting Bull and how he represents a community in crisis is really gripping and I think people can't help but come in to a new understanding of how history works, how history repeats," said Greyeyes.

Greyeyes, an associate professor of performance and devised theatre at York University, will play in the film as Sitting Bull opposite Academy Award-nominated actress Jessica Chastain as Catherine Weldon.

He said he hopes the story find its audience and that people really appreciates what the story is about.

"I think they'll learn something really significant about Indigenous rights, about empowerment and the power of people who resist," Greyeyes said.

The film's screenplay was written by Steven Knight (Eastern Promises) and is directed by Susanna White (Generation Kill). The film, currently in post-production, will be released in 2017.

Greyeyes said the film is set prior to the Wounded Knee Massacre, when the ghost dance ceremony was prevalent throughout the prairies.

"There was violence around each corner and I look at the United States right now and it's not dissimilar," Greyeyes said.

Greyeyes mentions an instance where he was reciting his lines, lines he says which were about not giving up ownership to the land. While he was saying his lines, he said he was very aware of the events unfolding around him such as the U.S. election and the protests in Standing Rock.

"For a movie that's been in the making for over a decade, it's timely beyond anything I could have imagined," he said.

Greyeyes thinks the movie has the potential to have a huge impact because of the way media is consumed now. He said people might read a book about what happened but actually seeing it will be a different experience.

"When you see it unfold in human terms, it grabs you in a different way," he said.

– Shauna Powers
"Sitting Bull Actor Sees Parallels in History and Today"
CBS News
November 20, 2016

I found Woman Walks Ahead to be a very powerful and moving film.

It's no masterpiece but it's far from "average." I give it a solid 8 out of 10 and lament the fact that it didn't get a wider theatrical release. Related to this point, I find myself wondering to what extent, if any, the political implications of the film's story in light of the ongoing struggle at Standing Rock and elsewhere, may have played in decisions about the film's release and promotion. I'll guess we'll never really know.

What we do know is that Woman Walks Ahead director Susanna White and actors Jessica Chastain, Michael Greyeyes and Sam Rockwell believe that their work does indeed relate to events at Standing Rock, and thus the phenomenon of history repeating.

Michael, for instance, shared the following in a Los Angeles Times interview last June.

When we were making the film, the Dakota Access Pipeline protests were unfolding to the north of us. It’s really actually quite powerful to come to set every day and recognize that some hundred plus years have passed, but the underlying political landscape remains exactly the same. The state wants our land either for access or to mine it of its resources. And here we were making a film about one man and his community’s struggle to resist the state taking everything. To me, that was quite sad, to recognize that truth – but also as an artist, I was so passionate about the work and the political message that the film gives. Literally, time has passed and nothing changed. We are still in the way of the conquest.

Also, in the video below, Michael and co-star Jessica Chastain talk about how the protests at Standing Rock affected the filming of Woman Walks Ahead.


Following is something of a retrospective of Michael Greyeyes' acting career. Enjoy!

Above: An early publicity shot of Michael Greyeyes (circa 1994).

Left: Michael in the 1993 made-for-television movie Geronimo. He played Juh in this film while Joseph Runningfox (pictured with Michael above) played Geronimo.

The film also stars Kimberly Norris as Geronimo's second wife. In a December 5, 1993 Los Angeles Times article, Norris, a descendant of Chief Seattle, shared the following.

I'm sure that for all involved, this is more than just a job, it's a spiritual endeavor. It's an effort to reach back into our history, and to understand what happened, why it happened, to regain some of the humanity that history – at least history in the form that it's taught – has taken away from us. That's what we're trying to do here with this story. We want to show people that we fell in love; we were heartbroken; we loved and lost; we whined and complained every once in a while – and that there are eternal truths that exist in all societies. Indian people are just human beings. So we're here setting some falsehoods straight.

Above: Michael as Gooch in Bruce McDonald's 1994 film, Dance Me Outside.

In an August 2016 interview with CBC's Candy Palmater, Michael reflected on his breakthrough film role.

The filmmakers, when they met me . . . you know, I'm Cree, I have kinda a smooth vibe when you meet me, and they were concerned that I couldn't play [Gooch] hard enough. So for me his experience, his toughness, what he went through, that was the layer I put on top of me.

It's a question of finding just the right balance because, for me, playing someone hard or thuggish is really interesting because there's really no one like that. Everyone has something. There's something sophisticated about every person. So I'm delighted that people actually connected with this guy who's a loner, who's really had difficult experiences but [within whom] there's something; there's a heart there.

Above: A meme that humorously contrasts the character of nerdy Thomas Builds-the-Fire in the film Smoke Signals with Gooch in Dance Me Outside.

Later in the same interview with Palmater, Michael talked about his evolving film career.

Change is something that we can make happen. And you can look at history, you can look at an industry [like the film industry] and go, argh, they won't move, they won't budge. But we just keep pushing; like, just put your finger on the door and keep pushing because we're dealing with a lot of history . . . a lot of stereotypes. But every actor from our community out there is trying to make it happen.

. . . So even when I started [with Dance Me Outside] I was allowed to see how sophisticated our characterizations could be. . . . So I took that going forward so that when I started doing period films, the historical films [like Crazy Horse and Stolen Women, Captured Hearts (right)] I understood how they wrote us was just only one part of how they could understand us. And it was my job to make sure that there were other elements that I would bring as an indigenous person, as someone who understood our culture or was learning about it.I can make that role different. I can change it. And I've been doing it, I think, in all the roles that I've done.

Above and right: Michael in the title role of director John Irvins' 1996 made-for-television movie, Crazy Horse.

Filmed on location in South Dakota and Nebraska, Crazy Horse has been described as a "gripping story with a fine cast." It's also been praised for its attention to detail. In The Journey of Crazy Horse: A Lakota History, historian and author Joseph M. Marshall III is critical of movie portrayals of Crazy Horse. Yet he concedes that Irvins' film "came the closest" in credibly portraying the life and story of the "strange man of the Oglalas."

For more about this film at The Wild Reed, click here, here, and here.

Above: Michael with Janine Turner in the 1997 made-for-TV movie Stolen Women, Captured Hearts, a story loosely based on the real-life Anna Brewster Morgan who was held by the Cheyenne for approximately one year before being returned to her husband.

Above: Michael as the Comanche warrior Tarantula in the 1997 CBS miniseries True Women.

In her profile of Michael in the February/March 1996 issue of Cowboys and Indians magazine, Wolf Schneider writes the following.

[I]n True Women [Greyeyes] developed a speech pattern for his threatening yet proud Tarantula that gave new meaning to the term "broken English." He seems to have the chops for that expansion of self and heightened awareness that Stanislavski considered so key to believable acting. . . . [Indeed, Greyeyes] proved [so] popular in True Women . . . that crew members began mimicking the halting speech of his Comanche character, like how he told Dana Delaney, "You . . . will walk . . . again . . . but not good. You . . . will not . . . ride horse with wings . . . again." Today, Greyeyes chuckles, recalling, "Everyone was imitating the way Tarantula spoke. They'd say, 'You . . . come to my bed . . . hey, Michael.' The cameramen, the grips, everyone was imitating me. What do they say – it's the highest form of flattery?"

Above and right: Michael with Jennifer Jason Leigh in the 2001 coming-of-age film, Skipped Parts. Michael plays the character of Hank Elkrunner.

Writes Variety's Ken Eisner about Skipped Parts:

[The] story is set in 1963, when Sam Callahan (Bug Hall) and his singularly bad-behavin’ mom, Lydia (Jennifer Jason Leigh), are exiled from South Carolina to faraway Wyoming. This gives [director] Tamra Davis a chance to toss in the Kennedy assassination, bad haircuts and other period symbols, but the pic never reads as if it’s really the ’60s; languid body language and frank, casually profane dialogue all convey a ’90s feel.

Conflict, in a nutshell, has sexually naive but good-natured Sam falling in love with his new schoolmate, a pretty girl called Maurey (Mischa Barton). She doesn’t love him back, exactly, but his slatternly mom encourages them to experiment, with predictable results. Her subsequent visit to the local abortion clinic — presumably a challenge to find in 1963 Wyoming — is further complicated by a surprise encounter with her Betty Crocker-like mom (Peggy Lipton, in a dark Jackie Kennedy do). Meanwhile, Lydia has hooked up with Hank (Michael Greyeyes), seemingly the only Indian in town, thus putting at risk the trust fund her Southern-fried dad (R. Lee Ermey, doing a spot-on Broderick Crawford) cruelly dangles before her.

Above: Michael with Skipped Parts co-star Bug Hall.

Above and left: The most powerful scenes in Skipped Parts involve Michael and actress Peggy Lipton, who plays a woman experiencing a psychological breakdown.

Apart from these scenes (and a number of others featuring Michael), I agree with critic Ken Eisner's contention that Skipped Parts is a "clunker," one that "hits wrong notes from the start and only gets more sour as it goes along."

Above and below: Whether hanging out with his rodeo clown buddy, drinking coffee, or displaying his physique while wearing only a pair of boxers, Michael's character, Hank Elkrunner, very much provides the heart – including the moral heart – of a movie which critic David Nusair declares "comes off as one long attempt to shock."

In 1998 writer Wolf Scheider wrote the following about Michael's physical attributes.

At 6'2" and 200 pounds, his got a dancer's grace (he spent a decade on the ballet circuit) and an athlete's muscles. Full-lipped, with shoulder-length dark hair and wide-set, steady eyes, 30-year-old Greyeyes, who's full-blooded Cree, more than fits the romanticized ideal of a people that once thrived free and in harmony with nature.

. . . While Greyeyes is physically so consummate so as to be idealized, he is in his personal life hardly stereotypical. Although he rides a horse bare-back and deep-seated on-screen, real life finds him allergic to animals. He's never lived on a reservation, but mostly in Toronto, New York, and now Cleveland, and admits, "I'm really a city boy." To get out in nature he neither hikes nor tracks nor hunts, but bicycles with his Polish-American dancer wife, Nancy Leroszewski, who performs with the Cleveland Ballet.

Above: Michael as Thunder Spirit in the 2003 miniseries Dreamkeeper.

Above: In The Reawakening (2004), Michael portrays Robert Doctor, a successful lawyer returning home to defend a childhood friend accused of murder.

Above: Michael in the 2008 war film Passchendaele.

Above: Michael as Shawnee leader Tecumseh in the 2009 PBS series We Shall Remain.

Above: Michael as Canonicus, leader of the Narragansett people, in the 2015 TV miniseries, Saints & Strangers.

Made by the National Geographic Channel, Saints & Strangers tells the story of the Mayflower voyage and chronicles the Pilgrims' first year in America and the first Thanksgiving in 1621. Critics give the miniseries mixed reviews, with Keith Uhlich of The Hollywood Reporter writing, "Nat Geo's two-night miniseries about the first Thanksgiving is admirable in parts, though bland overall"; and Maureen Ryan of Variety opining, "The serious intent [of Saints & Strangers] trips it up at times; many characters remain one-dimensional, and some sequences are plodding or repetitive. That said, the miniseries features nuanced work in a number of the Native Americans portrayals – often the best-developed characters on the screen."

Above: About his role in the TV series Fear the Walking Dead, Greyeyes said that he was honored to be representing Indian Country through his role as the tribal leader Qelataqa Walker, a Native man leading tribal members, who face ranchers over land disputes and more.

For his portrayal of Qelataga Walker, Michael was nominated in 2017 for a Saturn Award for Best Guest Performance in a Television Series.

Above: Michael Greyeyes as Sitting Bull and Jessica Chastain as Catherine Weldon in a scene from Woman Walks Ahead (2017).

In her insightful piece that evaluates the feminism of Woman Walks Ahead, Caroline Cao notes the following.

Sitting Bull’s male comrades rib him to take Weldon as his mistress. In a scene of sexual tension, Sitting Bull and Weldon seek shelter in a tent, undress, and gaze at each other uneasily; there is an atmosphere of unspoken attraction that spans racial and class inequalities. Though the film wisely averts the Hollywood sex scene, I wonder if this fictionalized version of Sitting Bull would look at a Native American woman in the same way he does at Weldon. After all, to shine a light on Weldon’s and Sitting Bull’s romantic tension, Sitting Bull’s real-life wives are erased completely from Woman Walks Ahead. However pragmatic this decision was from a story perspective, their excision accentuates the centralization of the white woman’s part in this slice of history.

Continues Cao:

If there is a lesson to learn from Woman Walks Ahead, it’s that a perspective of intersectionality is useful in interrogating inherent problems in any story or concept. However, treating a white figure as the relatable focal point for a mostly white audience comes with its own set of problems. It’s a pattern that dates back to the white-person-meets-Native-American-person of films like Dances with Wolves. At least the climax of Woman Walks Ahead speaks to the issue of Weldon’s white feminism: While allies such as Weldon can be a useful tool for a marginalized community to help its cause, white feminism does not have an intimate place in that marginalized community. In other words, Weldon has the privilege of crying her tears from a distance, while Sitting Bull bleeds in the snow, surrounded by his mourning people.

Above: Michael as Brett Woodard in the third (and current) season of the HBO drama, True Detective.

Writes Vincent Schilling about Michael's "stellar performance":

Michael Greyeyes shook me to the core. His hidden rage, his sadness and his frustration at being ridiculed by a town that automatically assumes he is responsible for the crimes being investigated.

Above (from left): Stephen Dorff as Roland West, Mahershala Ali as Wayne Hays, and Michael Greyeyes as Brett Woodard in True Detective (2019).

Above: Michael in the forthcoming film, Blood Quantum. Writes Joe Leydon:

In [Blood Quantum], Greyeyes explains, “I’m playing the sheriff in a fictional reserve community called Red Crow. It’s 1982 – and it’s the zombie apocalypse.”

But this particular apocalypse scenario has a major twist.

“Native people are immune. So, as the sheriff, I’m holding back the horde of white zombies to protect the community. It’s actually a very astute political commentary, really, on colonialism and the rapacious nature of colonialism. It’s funny, it’s scary, it’s exciting – and it also is quite politically astute.”

Above and right: Michael, his wife Nancy Latoszewski, and the couple's two daughters, Eva and Lilia, at the Woman Walks Ahead premiere during the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival – September 2017.

Above: A 2018 portrait of Michael Greyeyes by Michael and Shelle Neese.

When [Sitting Bull in Woman Walks Ahead] says, “We will give no more of our land away. Not even this much,” he’s just standing there, defiant and angry and powerful. For me, I was so gratified that we could, again, show this side of him. He’s legendary, he was a charismatic leader, he was a leader in every sense of the word. He lived the truth that he spoke. For me, that was also my responsibility as a performer: just to summon my own charisma, my own sense of power, and play him as I know he must have been.

– Michael Greyeyes
June 25, 2018

Related Off-site Links:
As Sitting Bull in Woman Walks Ahead, Michael Greyeyes Continues to Educate Through Native Roles – Amy Kaufman (Los Angeles Times, June 21, 2018).
Michael Greyeyes' Reaction to Playing His Hero on (2018).
Woman Walks Ahead Lead Sees a Sea Change for Indigenous People on Film – Lulu Garcia-Navarro (MPR News, July 1, 2018).
The True Story Behind Woman Walks Ahead – Lewis Knight (Mirror, September 5, 2018).
Michael Greyeyes Anchors the Cast of Jeff Barnaby's Blood Quantum – Todd Brown (Screen Anarchy, April 5, 2018).
Michael Greyeyes – Joe Leydon (Cowboys & Indians, June 25, 2018).

For more of Michael Greyeyes at The Wild Reed, see:
Michael Greyeyes' Role of a Lifetime
Michael Greyeyes on Temperance as a Philosophy for Surviving
A Warrior's Heart
Visions of Crazy Horse

See also:
"It Is All Connected"
Standing Together
Standing in Prayer and Solidarity with the Water Protectors of Standing Rock
Quote of the Day – August 19, 2016
Something to Think About – October 13, 2015
Words of Wisdom on Indigenous Peoples Day
"Something Sacred Dwells There"

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