Jeremiah Bitsui as Luther 'SickBoy' Maryboy in 'Drunktown's Finest.'

'Drunktown's Finest' Screens at Museum of Modern Art

Simon Moya-Smith

By 7 p.m. on Thurdsay, July 10, the foyer at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City was brimming with Native American talent—from filmmakers to actors to writers and even a few street-goers who witnessed the hoard of Indians in turquoise and braids and confused the MoMA, for a moment, with the National Museum of the American Indian. …

Wearing black, Robert Redford, actor and founder of the Sundance Institute, stood at the podium before the screen and began the night with a few sobering words:

"This movie ... it's a tough movie,” he said. “But it's a tough life.”

Redford was one of about 100 people at the MoMA in Midtown Manhattan who were in attendance to view the New York City debut of Sydney Freeland’s Drunktown’s Finest. The film is showing as part of the "Carte Blanche: Sundance Institute’s Native American and Indigenous Program," which runs through July 21 at the MoMA.

Drunktown’s Finest, produced by Redford, unflinchingly tells the tale of three Diné—SickBoy (Jeremiah Bitsui), Felixia (Carmen Moore) and Nizhoni (MorningStar Angeline)—as each, embattled by deep-rooted issues, attempt to discover who they are. Alcoholism plagues soon-to-be-father Sick Boy as he prepares to be a soldier; transgender Felixia navigates the difficulties of being third gender; and Nizhoni, who was adopted by a Christian couple, longs to find her family on the rez.

Demons, discovery, humiliation, redemption—there have been plenty of films that offer stories on the complexities of the human condition, but very few have put a Native face to it. Freeland, who began writing the script in 2005, directs with a deft touch, and does so without flirting with the depravity of poverty porn, which is ubiquitous in stories told about Native American plight. None will be found here, rest assured.

In a New York Times review of the film, critic Nicolas Rapold writes, “The screenplay tracing the characters’ struggles has a tidy, workshopped feel, and the dialogue and acting can be gratingly flat.” I beg to differ. Firstly, the acting itself was transporting, more gritty than gratingly flat, and Freeland appeared to creatively manipulate the standard script structure by testing the formula—that is, by adding signature rather than stale copy.

Freeland, who’s Diné, and the Sundance Institute’s Native American and Indigenous Program Director Bird N. Runningwater, Cheyenne and Mescalero Apache, concluded the film with a Q&A. Also in attendance was Bitsui, who has emerged as one of Indian country's top actors following a stint on the award-winning AMC TV series Breaking Bad.

Following the Q&A, Freeland and Runningwater zipped off to a private reception on Central Park West. Redford was on hand to chat with several Native American New Yorkers about the film, Native American talent and the program he founded.

The Sundance Institute's Native American and Indigenous Program is currently celebrating 20 years of locating, instructing and fostering Native American filmmakers. To date, the program has supported more than 300 filmmakers, according Sundance’s website.

Director Sterlin Harjo, a Sundance alumnus and member of the 1491s comedy troupe, was on hand as well; his latest film This May Be the Last Time was also showing at the MoMA as part of Carte Blanche.

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