‘I don’t think anyone’s paying attention to the real problem’ says Jeff Barnaby, director of ‘Rhymes for Young Ghouls’. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Galit Rodan)

Anti-Netflix Campaign Is ‘Drowning Native Voices’ Says Native Director

Wilhelm Murg
5/13/15

The controversial production of Adam Sandler’s upcoming Netflix film, The Ridiculous Six, has led to the hashtags #NotYourHollywoodIndian and #WalkOffNetflix; the latter is a call for people to cancel their Netflix service to show solidarity with the group of Native actors who walked off the film’s set due to the depiction of Native Americans.

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Jeff Barnaby, the director of Rhymes for Young Ghouls (2013) was born and raised on the Mi’gMaq reservation of Listuguj, Quebec.  His film, which is available on Netflix, is equally brilliant and brutal in its depiction of some of the most complex characters to come out of Native cinema. Amid the protests, Barnaby took to Twitter and criticized the #WalkOffNetflix campaign in a series of strongly-worded tweets.

He spoke to Indian Country Today Media Network about the controversy.   

ICTMN: How do you see the walk out by the Native actors?

Barnaby: Nobody goes into an Adam Sandler film expecting to see Citizen Kane; it’s bottom feeding to appeal to the lowest common denominator, fart jokes.  By the same token I don’t think anyone goes to an Adam Sandler film to be educated on Native people or anything else. That’s really the big problem; they are giving way too much credit to the film, which doesn’t actually exist yet.

RELATED: Young: “No, I Will Not Deactivate My Netflix Account”

I can’t think of another ethnicity that has been exploited and used as much as Native people, so I really understand the anger there, but I don’t think anyone’s paying attention to the real problem: the scope of it is too big to just lay it on one film. You’re really talking about Native exploitation in film, and if that’s the case, it doesn’t matter if Sandler’s film gets made or not, it will not make up for the hundred years that came before the Ridiculous Six.

Do you feel he crossed a line in his depiction of Native people?

There is no line, in my opinion, as an artist, as somebody who looks to express themselves. The moment you start putting limitations on that mode of expression you’re limiting yourself as an artist. That said, I think that film has been made a million times over, both satirically and seriously, and they’re all wrong! It doesn’t really matter if they’re good or bad, they just wrong.  That’s the problem; looking to Hollywood for an accurate representation of ANYTHING! There are way too many people who look for their reality in cinema in terms of the way they see themselves projected in their life.  There’s an unrealistic image there that everybody’s striving for, and that’s kind of the point; they’re showing a lifestyle and I think Native people really fell into that. 

Do you see a way out of this?

When you start talking about Native representation in the media it becomes a circular tornado of an argument because it just goes in and around itself and it destroys anything it touches.  There’s no real wrapping your head around it or moving forward, because racism just seems to be ingrained in Hollywood films.  You can talk about it forever, but when you build a country on a genocide you have to go about promoting that “it wasn’t genocide, it was manifest destiny.”  We need to reinvent those images.  We’re coming to the point now that the drum and feather Indian that you see in movies, like Dances with Wolves, is what Native people represent, and that’s not the case.

Filmmakers Brian Young and Sterlin Harjo have come out against the #WalkOffNetflix campaign because of the Native American films available on the service. Is that your main complaint?

Here’s the thing: nobody has seen Rhymes for Young Ghouls, right?  You would have to have had your ear on the ground to have heard about it, and that’s true of a lot of Native directors’ films. You have the ability to make films fairly cheaply, and you’re getting a market that is flooded with bullshit, frankly. Professional filmmakers have to battle for that position with amateurs and nobody’s interested in Native-told stories per se.  Smoke Signals was 17 years ago, and everybody’s been waiting for that next watershed film that was going to break it all open for Native cinema and it just hasn’t happened yet.  It’s because the avenues aren’t there in terms of distribution.  At the end of the day Hollywood is about making money, so if you want to be a filmmaker you need to make money. They don’t qualify you by ethnicity, they just want to know if you are making good films, and that was our goal; we wanted to make a good film, but try to sneak in the content; providing a message wrapped up in an entertainment vehicle. 

So if you’re rolling back about 100 years of representation in cinema, it’s not going to happen with 1 or 2 films.  You’re going to have to get 40 or 50 films before you can start talking about Native Cinema as a genre. The problem with #WalkOffNetflix is that it is inadvertently suppressing those voices with good intentions, but the last I heard, the road to hell was paved with them. 

So that was my main beef with it: you’re drowning our ethnic voices because of this idiot.

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Russell Bates
Russell Bates
Submitted by Russell Bates on
 
Obviously this Canadian is speaking only in his own self-defense. SMOKE SIGNALS was more than just 17 years ago, it was a generation ago and Native films did not progress in such a time frame. Road films, rez films, relocation films — is that really ALL there is for Native content? If the main film industry repeats and repeats its errors and biases, thus educating filmmakers to come to repeat the same errors and biases, then Native films repeating its own insular self-imposed limitations only serves to educate Native filmmakers to come in the same limitations. Mr. Barnaby is blaming his audience, which he fails to see is but yet another tool in his filmmaker’s toolkit. And it is a poor workman who criticizes his own tools. Russell Bates is a Native writer who put the first Native crewman aboard the Starship ENTERPRISE. Why has no one else done the same or better?
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