Rez Life à la The Sopranos
In a closed society that operates under its own rules, things can go very wrong. In recent years, that basic idea has underpinned some of the best series on television: the HBO hits The Sopranos, True Blood, and Big Love, to name a few. First Nations reserve life will get a similar unflinching look when Canadian production company Prairie Dog Film & Television unleashes Blackstone on Jan. 25.
Set on (and off) the fictional Blackstone reserve, the show is an intense, compelling and confrontational exploration of power and politics. “We wanted to take a look at some of the reserves in Canada and to bring some exposure to what are some really big problems: corruption and nepotism,” says Ron E. Scott, executive producer and a member of the Métis Nation of Alberta. “Authenticity is one of the hallmarks of this production; a lot of our Native actors have first-hand knowledge of this stuff—people in their family or people they know. That includes me: My mother was Native and my father was a drunken white sailor. I have a lot of aunts and uncles on my mom’s side who grew up close to the reserve, and I looked at some of their behaviors. In the clash of cultures the authenticity really comes forward.”
The quest for authenticity led Scott and his team, which also includes the award-winning Native filmmaker Gil Cardinal, down some dark roads that Native TV and cinema has often avoided. Characters battle addiction to alcohol and gas-huffing. There is tension between those who have left the reserve and those who still live there. Characters with high social status cling to it, while those at the bottom of the pecking order struggle for respect.
“One of the comments I’ve heard over and over about the show is that it’s ‘too real,’?” says Scott. “We don’t hold anything back on the show. It’s confrontational and un-muted. Sometimes the truth comes wrapped in an ugly package, but at the same time when you open that truth, that’s when hope begins to breathe. This show is not a procedural, where this woman is an alcoholic and she just quits drinking and it’s over. There are consequences to negative actions in the show. I hope people will see that.”
The Blackstone First Nation is its own worst enemy—a break to some extent from the traditional narrative, which usually finds Natives united against an outside force. Yet Scott is striving to humanize, not exploit, and there are several characters on the show who are trying to effect positive change. “I hope Blackstone will show that Native people have the same struggles as anyone else,” he says. “In Canada there’s a real underlining stereotype aimed at Native people. I lived in the U.S. for awhile, so I saw the undercurrent in the black/white relationship. It’s very similar in Canada, but at the same time there’s more of a resentment because of the public money that goes out to Native people. I’ve seen it many times. I don’t look Native to some people, so I’ve heard them spout opinions they would never say to a Native’s face, and you can hear this undercurrent of resentment. But I know Native people who are doing really great things in their communities.”
In the end, Blackstone is a TV drama, and, like any artist, Scott wants the work to succeed on its own and to transcend labels. “An interviewer said the other day that while watching Blackstone he did not feel that he was watching a native show," he says. “For me, that’s the goal.”
Blackstone premieres on Canada’s APTN network on Jan. 25, and on Showcase beginning on Jan. 28. For more information, visit BlackstoneTheSeries.com.