Through a Native Lens is a column by film critic and citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, Shea Vassar, that explores the nuance of the best and worst cases of indigenous representation in cinema. This entry deals with the offensive anti-native dialogue in the Marvel Comics adaptation The New Mutants.
This has been a strange year full of headlines and events that only make sense at a time of an unexpected global pandemic. However, other projects were postponed much later due to the coronavirus The new mutants already jumped through too many tires to allow further setbacks. Its release last August brought the world an anti-climactic entertainment piece topped off by lackluster character development and an abundance of anti-indigenous dialogue.
Danielle, also known as Dani Moonstar (Blu Hunt) is a Cheyenne teenager who finds herself in a mysterious facility after a natural disaster destroyed her entire reserve. There are four other mutants under the care of Dr. Reyes (Alice Braga), including two other girls, Rahne Sinclair (Maisie Williams) and Ilyana Rasputin (Anya Taylor-Joy). Each of these teenagers have inexplicable powers that result from natural mutations, but Dani has yet to figure out what her supernatural talent is.
Shortly after they hit screens in limited cinema locations and drive-ins, the internet hummed at the insults Ilyana hurled at Dani. To be honest, these notes are ridiculous and terrible written. For example, here is a moment of an actual conversation from the movie:
Ilyana: You don’t know how to grow weeds, do you?
Ilyana: What kind of Indian are you?
Ilyana: I actually didn’t ask.
Ilyana is scared, which shows in her youthful rebel stance and ripped black tights. Still, the entire film is full of underdeveloped exchanges, especially between these two girls. There are appropriate ways to study bullying in adolescents that do not lead to unintentional awkwardness for the viewer. However, the line that we need to unpack the most is this:
Ilyana: Hey, Standing Rock, do you want a buffalo wing? Your people love buffalo, don’t they?
Again, lazy writing is so bad that it physically hits the audience in the face. The worst part, however, is the complete undermining of one of the largest Native American movements in the United States in recent decades.
Ironically in 2014, the same year that director and co-writer Josh Boone came up with his idea for a horror exploration of the New Mutants comics, Energy transmission partner announced his plans for what would become known as the Dakota Access Pipeline. The route would cross to the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation as well as under Lake Oahe, a significant source of water not only for the Standing Rock people but also for other indigenous communities in the area.
It’s important to note that even if the plans hadn’t moved to Standing Rock, the insurrection against something as outrageous as a 1,200-mile pipeline would still have met resistance. The fact that it exceeded treaty lines and disrupted sacred land and water sources only fueled the anger. The question about an oil pipeline is not whether it will leak, but when.
Although there has been resistance and legal action against the Dakota Access Pipeline since the idea was first created, 2016 is the year usually recognized when talking about the Standing Rock protests. Camps were set up and allies ventured to South Dakota to show solidarity when tribal nations filed lawsuits against the pipeline.
Even in those early days, those detained by the authorities faced brutality and strip searches before being released from custody. The aggression against the land guards and their allies only escalated. Rubber bullets, attack dogs, pepper spray, frozen water: these were all forms of retaliation deliberately used to deter those who stood up to protect the country.
The next year brought new problems for those against the Dakota Access Pipeline. Four days after his inauguration, President Donald Trump signed an executive order promoting construction of the pipeline. Later in 2017, oil began flowing through the pipeline and resulted in at least five separate leaks in just twelve months. Many proponents of the pipeline dismissed the leaks as minor, without considering the long-term impact fracking gas has on the environment and the people living in the areas.
With this in mind, why does Ilyana choose the “Standing Rock” weapon? Because this incredibly big moment in recent history is one of the few cultural touchstones that many people have in relation to Native Americans. In fact, all of the racist comments thrown at Dani are based on stereotypes because that’s all the writers know: Pocahontas, marijuana, buffalo and standing rock.
Dani Moonstar is a cartoon character created by two white men, Chris Claremont and Bob McLeod, and brought to the big screen by another white man in this latest film. Casting Blu Hunt, a Lakota actor, as Dani was a huge step in the right direction, but the flat development of her character overwhelms the entire film. Plus, it’s proof that native representation wasn’t the target for the main character’s arch.
The main downside to the Native American character is the lack of confidence Dani has to fight against these bigoted comments that Ilyana uses against her. In fact, they are never spoken to, they just disappear somewhere in the second act and the two girls end up becoming friends.
So much has happened in the six, almost seven years since the New Mutants Project began ping-ponging, especially talking about who has the power to tell which stories. We have passed the point where chunky dialogue and uninspired writing cut it off for on-screen display. Dani Moonstar deserves better.