Hollywood v. Indians: Russell Means, The Great Mystery and Adam Sandler's Dreck

Bayard Johnson

During the 20 years that Russell Means and I were writing partners, from 1992 to 2012, Hollywood made several movies that misrepresented American Indians and their cultures in insulting ways. Two big studio titles that leap to mind are GERONIMO (1993) and THE MISSING (2003). And then, just when you thought Hollywood might finally be getting over its penchant for making movies that tell lies about Indians, here comes the Adam Sandler picture, RIDULOUS 6, slated to air on Netflix on December 11.

How could this happen in the year 2015? Haven’t people learned anything? Last April, during filming, the Indian technical advisor and several Indian actors walked off the set, quitting in protest, due to a script that was jaw-droppingly insulting toward American Indians.

Several pages from the script became public during the April protests. Producers assured the Indian technical advisor, along with other troublerd actors, that the script would not be changed, and that they were welcome to leave if they weren’t happy with that. It’s not unusual in Hollywood, and a bit of a mystery, why producers hire technical advisors and then frequently ignore or fire them.

The worst scenes, high-lighted in the April protest, included Indian women named “Wears No Bra” and “Beavers Breath.” Indian women were depicted as using dead rodents to clean tbeir “chungo.” Additionally, an Indian woman is showing smoking a “peace pipe” while urinating. Also, a male character suggests to an Indian woman that they go someplace where he can “put his pee-pee in her tipi.” (There is a little confusion here, because the Indians in the movie are allegedly Apache, but they appear to live more like Plains Indians—it’s as if, in order to be a real Indian, you have to live in a tipi. The filmmakers clearly don’t know the difference, but more importantly, they didn’t care, because they hired and had access to an Indian technical advisor, but then ignored him.)

If a movie intended to insult American Indian culture, the incidents highlighted during the April on-set protest hit the spiritual trifecta. To Plains Indians, and to many other Indian nations, the woman, who is capable of creating life, is the most sacred and honored person in society. The Pipe is a gift given directly from the Great Mystery—and brought to the people by a woman. The tipi is a sacred shape, with great spiritual power.

During the summer, after the controversy left the front pages, the media tried to tie the incident up in a nice neat bow. It was reported that though a dozen or so Indians left the picture, over a hundred stayed, working as extras and other cast members. Nobody bothered to suggest that the Indian actors who remained on the picture might have stayed not out of support for the material, but because they needed the paycheck. As for the producers saying the script would not be changed and those who were dissatisfied should “just leave,” this doesn’t ordinarly happen on a movie when an actor or technical advisor has trouble with the material. Usually there’s a discussion between the troubled parties and the writer, director, producer—someone in a position to do something. Only with Indians have I seen the “just leave” approach. In July, at the release of Sandler’s disastrous Sony picture PIXELS, the actor stated that the whole RIDICULOUS 6 controversy was a misunderstanding, and nobody wanted to offend anyone.

This still doesn’t explain how such a misbegotten movie could get green lighted in the year 2015, but the clues are all here—and it has less to do with American Indians than it has to do with Adam Sandler, Sony, and Netflix.

Here’s the background. In Hollywood there are only a few major players: Universal, Paramount, Disney, Fox, Sony, Warner Brothers. When an actor is truly hot, like Sandler was when his movies made over 3 billion dollars worldwide, every major studio wants your next picture. So A-List actors with the kind of box office draw Sandler had are offered production deals by the various studios. The studio pays for your offices, your assistants’ salaries, you have an expense account, development funds for creating new movie projects. Usually the studio gets the right of first refusal, meaning that the star can take the project somewhere else if the studio that paid for all the development passes on making the movie. This is a dream deal for a big star, and only those with the power to bring big numbers to the box office get these deals.

But then Sandler’s box office took a dive. Sony was losing money and, according to the emails leaked in late 2014, there was apparently a lot of talk around Sony about dumping Sandler and his deal at the studio. When a big star loses a studio deal, the abyss yawns before them. Is this the beginning of free-fall? What if they can never get another picture going? A star losing the studio production deal can feel like their entire life and career are about to implode.

In steps Netflix. Netflix is not movie guys, they’re computer guys who are making a fortune with what used to be called on-demand streaming video. They figured out how to make the technology work first, but now HBO and others are working to catch up. If Netflix doesn’t expand their share of the entertainment turf, they’ll go the way of Blockbuster. So Netflix decided to create their own “content”—that is, make their own movies. Trouble is, these aren’t theatrical movies—a “Netflix Original” is really just a direct-to-video movie. The theatrical release is the prestige item. Until recently, if a picture was made without a distributor, and then couldn’t find one, it would often be released straight to video as a “busted theatrical”—a movie that didn’t make it to theaters. Appearing in movies that don’t make it to theaters is a big step down in the decline of a star.

Netflix, touting their direct-to-video platform as something more—a “Netflix Original”—is out to change all that. Trouble is, they can’t get big stars to sign on for no theatrical release. Netflix doesn’t care about box office because their money doesn’t come from theaters—it’s from streaming video. So Netflix turns out to be a good haven for a star who is losing his big studio deal, and doesn’t welcome a lot of scrutiny of his recent box office numbers. When Netflix offered Sandler a deal to do 4 pictures, it was in a way a win-win deal.

But again, Netflix isn’t a bunch of movie guys—they’re computer guys, up in San Jose, trying to figure out a way to play with some real movie players. When Sandler and Netflix made the deal, Sandler pulled out RIDICULOUS 6 as his first project. This picture had already been turned down months before at Warner Brothers, where better judgment prevailed. But not at Netflix. The real question is, did Netflix know what Sandler and friends were up to, or did they just give the filmmakers free reign to spend $60 million on whatever film they wanted? Knowing that their business has nothing to do with theatrical box office, but only with the number of times that subscribers click on certain films, any controversy will be good for their business, even if the viewers are just checking out how bad the movie is.

It’s in situations like this that I often miss Russell Means most. Since Russell walked on in October 2012, more and more people seem to be saying they know what Russell Means would do about this or that. In 20 years of friendship, I rarely knew what Russell would do. That’s a feature of a great leader—they come up with ideas nobody else thought of.

So, though I obviously couldn’t say what Russell would do about RIDICULOUS 6, I can report on what he actually did during similar situations while we were working together.

Movies about Indians looked attractive to Hollywood in 1992, in the wake of the financial successes of DANCES WITH WOLVES and LAST OF THE MOHICANS. Obviously, people wanted to see movies about Indians. So GERONIMO was put into production, for a 1993 release.

At first, Russell was excited that Hollywood was going to make a big-budget movie about Geronimo. He hoped that it might be made with the accuracy and attention to detail that Michael Mann brought to LAST OF THE MOHICANS, which was Russell’s first movie role. Chingachgook. A living legend playing a fictional one. Wow. Much of Hollywood reacted, upon seeing the film, as if they’d just seen a real live Indian for the first time in their lives. Twentieth Century Fox pushed him for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, taking out full-page ads in Daily Variety.

Russell clearly saw the potential for Hollywood movies and TV shows to influence and inform people. That’s why a picture like GERONIMO was so important—big budget, big stars, potentially big influence on what the public knows about Indians.

Russell came over for dinner one evening and sat down at the table, hardly speaking, staring into space. He was in another world. After a while he sat up straighter, cleared his throat, and came back to our kitchen table. “Got a look at the GERONIMO script,” he said. “It’s the worst piece of trash I’ve ever seen.” I can’t remember how many factual errors about Indians were written into the script. It was a staggering number, over 100. Everything about the script reflected an attempt by non-Indians, who knew nothing about Indians or their culture or beliefs or ways of life, to make money off the popular current interest in movies about American Indians. There was no attempt by the filmmakers to learn anything factual about Indians, or to represent them on screen with any accuracy whatsoever, according to Russell’s reading of the script.

Russell said he had given the producers notes on the script, listing the problems item by item. From working as a screenwriter in Hollywood, I knew that these notes would cost money to address and correct. Schedules could be affected, release dates become uncertain. I asked Russell what he intended to do when his notes on the script were ignored.

This is where I had one of the big early surprises in my friendship with Russell. We had similar public school educations, Russell near San Francisco and me near Seattle, so we could converse on that basis, and analyze things the way whites are taught. But Russell had this whole other side, from his time growing up in Indian Country, with his extended traditional family. He had additional ways of seeing the world, fresh interpretations of what was really going down politically. Russell had access to an entirely different world view. A more comprehensive and truer world view than any white man education alone could bring. Russell’s insights came from a wide range of perspectives, and he had a great ability for seeing everyone’s point of view.

While still a student, I had witnessed the rise of the Black Panthers and the SDS. I’d watched in amazement as Russell and others in the American Indian Movement went toe to toe with the government over and over, and somehow not only survived, but kept coming out on top. Nobody I knew thought anyone would walk out of Wounded Knee alive in 1973. Through these times, there was a certain disappointment that I had missed all the action because I was still in school. So here was a chance, I thought, to see Russell and the American Indian Movement roll into action. This could be great.

So what did Russell intend to do, I asked him, about this atrocity of a movie, GERONIMO? He thought a moment longer, then looked straight at me and said in a matter-of-fact voice, “We don’t have to do anything.” Not do anything? No confrontations, no protests, no inspiring speeches, no battle lines?

“The Great Mystery will take care of it,” said Russell.

This is not what I expected to hear, but once again, as a leader, he came up with ideas nobody else thought of. Another vital leadership quality of Russell’s was that, having a new idea, he had the skills to communicate it, and inspire others to hope and try when before there was nothing but despair and hopelessness. And, to a remarkable degree, Russell’s ideas worked.

Russell’s position on the Great Mystery handling the rude GERONIMO picture was a surprise, but it was also consistent with our conversation a few months before, when Russell and I agreed to become partners. At that time, Russell said there were 3 things that were vital to him in this collaboration. First, it was crucial to show that Indians and white people could work together productively. The real idea behind a partnership was to find and create allies, like-minded individuals who may look nothing like you, but who share values and goals and ideals.

The other two vital truths about Indian people which we should always keep in the forefront, Russell said, were to emphasize his people’s spirituality and humor. These two strengths, according to Russell, were the most misunderstood aspects of Indian people, and were all that had allowed Indians to survive into the present.

How was the Great Mystery going to take care of GERONIMO? I must’ve looked dubious. “If you look at the history of Hollywood,” said Russell, “you’ll see that recent movies that have treated Indians with respect—LAST OF THE MOHICANS, LITTLE BIG MAN, THE OUTLAW JOSIE WALES, DANCES WITH WOLVES—have all done well at the box office. Those like GERONIMO, which trampled roughshod over Indian culture, were box office disasters. Just wait, said Russell. You’ll see.

The numbers became clear later in 1993. GERONIMO cost $35 million to produce. The picture grossed $18 million, meaning that everyone who tried to exploit Indian culture to make money lost their ass instead. Makes you want to say, Let’s hear some more about this Great Mystery…more powerful even than Hollywood. THE MISSING, a 2003 release with huge stars, a story line grossly insulting to Indians (a “horror” film, with the horror supplied by “Indians” doing things that Indians didn’t do), and a budget of $60 million, got cleaned out at the box office, grossing $27 million, less than half its budget.

In the case of RIDICULOUS 6, there will be no box office. No theatrical release. It’s a straight-to-video title. It’s almost as if the Great Mystery took care of it while everyone was still sitting around wondering what to do. In the fall of a star, what we’re witnessing is a desperate last-gasp effort at getting a deal—any deal—when there is still someone, anyone, willing to make a deal with you. Even if it’s a bunch of computer guys from San Jose.

“Ridiculous” doesn’t just describe Sandler’s movie, or the current situation, with yet another corny insensitive movie coming out, nobody very happy about it, and nothing being done to prevent endless repetitions of this same ridiculous situation. How is it that Hollywood continues to invest millions in movies that are insulting to cultures that have nothing to do with the filmmakers and that the filmmakers know nothing about? Isn’t this supposed to be a time of increased cultural awareness and sensitivity? Why is it okay to make a movie about a foreign culture that you’re clueless about?

If someone came to me with an idea for a movie involving Indians, my first question would be, “What do you know about Indians?” Nobody ever asks that question, instead they complain that it always seems to be Indians who are objecting to this. Why? Because it is Indians that movies keep exploiting—and they just keep doing it! I don’t recall any recent comedies portraying other cultural minorities as “quaint” or “cute” or “dumb as a box of rocks.”. The argument that the movie is a comedy, “Come on, it’s just a joke!” doesn’t wash. Does anybody in the world really think it’s okay for someone who knows nothing about them to make jokes about their culture, and spread these lies all over the world? Could be your culture getting trashed next time, could be mine. Probably won’t be though—let’s face it, most likely it’ll be Indians. I don’t understand why it is almost always Indians who are picked out for this abusive treatment?

What’s truly ridiculous is that, in the year 2015, there is still no apparatus in place in Hollywood to ensure that this kind of egregious insult doesn’t just keep on happening forever. Aren’t we all sick of it by now, Indians and non-Indians alike? Can’t we agree that all people should be treated with respect in movies? It’s too powerful a business, too influential in helping shape the public’s thoughts and perceptions and realities, to leave an issue like this entirely up to chance, or the conscience of filmmakers.

If you make a movie where animals appear to be injured or killed, you need a special seal from the Humane Society or someone that goes on the End Credits, and guarantees that no animals were harmed in the filming. You need a special seal protecting dogs—but not for people? Unbelievable. Human beings don’t deserve the same protections? Why is there no seal from a Hollywood-sponsored anti-defamation organization—possibly the Writers Guild, or the Screen Actors Guild, or even the Producers Guild—that guarantees that no individuals or cultures were falsely represented, and that the movie is, basically, not a pile of lies and propaganda designed to make money by exploiting, ridiculing, and making fun of foreign cultures and peoples.

On the other hand, maybe we don’t really need the seal in the End Credits. Like Russell said, there’s always the Great Mystery, more powerful than Hollywood.

Bayard Johnson studied philosophy and writing at the University of Puget Sound. He has written and produced feature films for Warner Brothers, Disney, Sony Pictures, MGM/UA, and 20th Century Fox. With partner Russell Means, Johnson co-wrote the feature screenplay, Wounded Knee 1973, and the 2012 book, If You've Forgotten the Names of the Clouds, You've Lost Your Way: An Introduction to American Indian Thought and Philosophy.

You need to be logged in in order to post comments
Please use the log in option at the bottom of this page