20th Century Fox
Leonardo DiCaprio in a scene from the 'Revenant'

'Revenant' Review: It’s Ok, But Still the Same Ol’ White Savior Stuff for Native People

Gyasi Ross

NOTE: This review contains spoilers—both of the movie and also for those tender hearts who think that Leonardo DiCaprio is somehow doing something progressive for Native people. 

Disclaimer: Leonardo DiCaprio is my favorite actor (although Liam Neeson is quickly catching up). He’s been my favorite actor since “The Aviator”; the boy has played in some classics. “Shutter Island,” “Inception,” “Catch Me If You Can,” “Gangs of New York,” “Basketball Diaries”…ok, ok even “Titanic.”  He’s played in so many classics that I’ll forgive him for “J. Edgar Hoover.”

That’s how much I like him. 

Revenant is no classic. It’s cool, but not great. And socially, in the words of Graham Greene in “Thunderheart,” “it’s the second coming of the same old cavalry.” Of course, some Natives have taken to him in recent months because he dedicated a good thirty seconds to Native people during his speech during the Golden Globe Awards. They wanted to compare his short sound bite to Marlon Brando’s Oscar Awards protest decades ago. Also, a few more Natives went fully Team Leo because he spent half a day taking selfies with Native people during the March on Climate Change and those selfies and that half a day was proof that he’s real about change.

LOL. Lots of Hollywood actors have pet “causes” with no risk. He hasn’t shown that he’s any different. Yet.

The Brando comparison? Silly. Historically, it doesn’t add up. Marlon Brando, from his privileged position, actually took some risk.  Not only was he willing to get arrested for participating in a fish-in with the Natives in the Pacific Northwest and marching in protests where lots of folks got arrested, he also stayed involved in the cause through Wounded Knee II. Most importantly Brando did not try to speak for Native people during his “awards show” moment. Instead, he did what real allies do and relinquished his platform for Native people to speak for ourselves—entrusting a Native woman Sacheen LittleFeather to use her brilliance, voice, volition and self-determination.  As much as I like DiCaprio’s acting, he’s still acting when it comes to being an ally as long as he does the typical white man thing and chooses to speak for us. 

Well, that really has nothing to do with the movie Revenant, does it? Au contraire!!! (I figured since there were French Fur Traders featured in the movie that little bit of French language would be appropriate).  It’s actually largely the same story in the movie—it would have been cool if he surrendered that space for Native people to have some agency.

See, the movie is cool. It’s solid. It’s visually stunning and shows all of the beauty, seductiveness and danger that this continent had to offer. No wonder European settlers wanted to be here—they were starving over in Europe, with no possibility of ever improving their lots in life before they died at the ripe old age of 35.  Hence, they were willing to risk (seemingly) almost certain death to try to find their fortunes here.  The movie captures that amazingly. 

The movie also portrays Native people in a fairly historically accurate light. Native people were brutal during this time period because we had to be brutal. White Americans were brutal. French people were brutal. Native people could not be exempt from that world and were trying to hold on for dear life; guns, germs and steel threatened our very existence. If the movie hadn’t shown Native people with a willingness to participate in the brutality of the time period it would have been inaccurate and dangerous as it would have stripped our ancestors of the dignity of protecting our people at all costs.  The white men were terrified of “The Ree” (the Arikara people) and probably with good reason; from historical accounts and also from the movie, the Ree could get down with the best of them and were fierce warriors defending their people.

But the actual human story pushed Revenant into the same “white savior” garbage pile that has permeated pretty much any mainstream movie that includes Natives as major characters. DiCaprio’s “Glass” character is a dirty, vicious, capitalistic and brutal white man who is trying to get some quick money at the expense of Native people’s resources just like every other white man in the movie. The only difference is that Glass has a half-Native son (some of his best friends are black) and so that, evidently, somehow makes him different than the rest of the dirty, vicious, brutal and capitalistic white men.  Glass instructs his half-Native son to be silent and to not upset white men, for survival, as white men hold the key to Native people’s survival and can exterminate them at any time. “Be invisible.”

When one of those other dirty, vicious, capitalistic brutal white men kills Glass’s son, DiCaprio goes full-on Native; somehow surviving the worst tragedies, misfortunes and pains that the world can throw at him (‘cause that’s what we do). He’s bent on revenge—the only way that he can find redemption is through avenging his Native son. And that’s kinda the way Hollywood historically uses Native people and black bodies: as lesson providers and tragic figures. We usually don’t live long enough to see the glory of the white man’s redemption, but instead have to be killed so that the white protagonist can find his or her humanity.

That’s exactly what happens here. A Pawnee man also helps Glass find his humanity by teaching Glass that revenge is “in God’s hands.” Neither of these Native muses, the son or the Pawnee man, are alive long enough to see Glass’s redemption (the Pawnee man is soon seen dangling from a tree because Native people cannot teach a spiritual lesson and live in the same movie), but those dead Indians should rest easy knowing that their mission in life was completed: rescuing the white man’s humanity. 

Along the way, Glass also rescues a young Arikara woman from being raped. She is the only other female character that gets more than a few frames and both of those Native women are brutalized—the first, Glass’s wife, gets killed by soldiers and this young Ree lady gets raped by the French.  Of course that violence has historical roots and even today has resonance—Native women are raped at exponentially higher rates than anyone else in this nation. Yet, it seems almost a conspiracy how little control, autonomy or voice Native people were given over our own lives in this movie.  While brutality against Native people is historically accurate so is Native people being free and having agency. Yet Hollywood loves for us to be helpless and needing white people’s saving.  The only time we’re not helpless in these movies is when we’re dead and a white man is learning a lesson from beyond our graves. Natives are always the objects in Hollywood’s movies, never the subjects. 

The Revenant is no different. 

The movie is cool. Visually stunning and it’s always cool to see Native actors in a huge movie. If you’re looking for that, go see it by all means. If you want to see one of Leo’s best movies go watch The Aviator or Shutter Island. The politics? The same old thing that white Hollywood has always shown of Native people. I truly hope that Leonardo DiCaprio turns into an ally for our communities in the way that Marlon Brando was—it seems like he could be effective as an ally if he were to really work at it. I hope so. But right now? Simply the second coming of the same old cavalry. 

Gyasi Ross, Editor at Large
Blackfeet Nation/Suquamish Territories
Twitter: @BigIndianGyasi

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stellinagiannitsi's picture
Submitted by stellinagiannitsi on
With all due respect, di Caprio is not protrayed as a "white savior" exactly. He is not the naive, cliche' Avatar white guy. He is no Dunbar from Dances with Wolves either. Glass is portrayed as one of the guys who hunt for pelts, not much different than them in any way... BUT the fact that, even though he lived among and with native people, and loved a native woman, and had a son with her, he still became a trapper. Even that fact -or the fact that other whites killed the people who adopted him along with his beloved- apparently was not enough for Glass to reflect upon and undergo a transformation, and choose perhaps a different profession. Or a path that would side with the natives one way or another. No. So, even the main character (whom you consider an agent of white privilege) is shown to be nothing other but a product of his time within the white colonialist framework: someone who can simply go into somebody else's home, and take what he wants. As long as that somebody else is a non-white. The only difference, perhaps, could be that he was not as ruthless or "lost" like his antagonist... but then again, so were the young man who did not want Glass dead, or the colonel who, until the end, followed the rules of "propriety" and morality that even those characters were supposed to follow. I cannot see Glass portrayed on a higher scale than the Chief, for example, who is looking for his daughter. Actually, the particular native man shows much higher moral character (translated by both worlds in a similar manner) than di Caprio's, and with graver sense of determination and purpose. This is perhaps due to his purposes not serving him personally (like in the case of Glass) or solely. As for the lone native man who shares buffalo meat with Glass, of course he had to be hung by the ridiculous French. Because this is what usually happened in real life. This man was not a device in the movie to exalt Glass' purpose. He was one of the thousands that died for no reason in the hands of those who took their land, tried to exterminate them, and named them savages. As for the fact that -as you very accurately mention- the native and the black guy need to die for the white protagonist to find salvation, yes. This is what is happening in the film. But it is not far from the "story" of Manifest Destiny narrative, which by the way became a reality. And then it just Happened (and is still happening to a different degree). A story becoming reality should not be strange in the eyes of a people who honor and use stories to explain and work around and in the world. Even from a different, non-destructive point of view. And this is what this film depicts: the relentless, brutal, disgusting reality of what truly happened (more or less) during that period of time, caused by whites who considered this magnificent -beyond words- land theirs, although it belonged and was adored and revered by another. They made up their story, and yes, in the best of circumstances, the red and the black guy had to die to absolve the abominations of the white one, so the white guy could stand up again, renewed, and then try to steal and kill some more. And this is what the film shows the world. Honestly, harshly, using breath-taking cinematography, sticking out like a rusty nail that pierced through one's guts. Not doing favors to anyone. Especially the pumpered viewer watching this long film in a climate controlled theater, probably eating some snacks. A theater built on the land of another.

Juliet's picture
Submitted by Juliet on
The real Hugh Glass did not have a half-Native son. Pretty much everything in the movie was added to this story: he was mauled by a bear and his two traveling companions buried him to keep Natives from finding the body. When he went after them, it was to get his possessions back -- and I think they did return his stuff.

Sammy7's picture
Submitted by Sammy7 on
The movie would have been more realistic if Glass were played by Peewee Herman. Using Mr. Bean in support would have added impact. The use of di Caprio was just to gas up the overworked old myth of white supremacy. Does anyone else get the sense that the Universe is laughing?

klairia's picture
Submitted by klairia on
I have an alternative interpretation of the film. Starting with the main point is that despite all that Glass has done "it won't bring your boy back" .. it is an admission that there is nothing we can do to fix what has happened. Glass instead of taking revenge puts Fitzgerald in the hands of the Ree. Another clear admission. The movie ends with the Glass completely lost... the look on his face of pain and sadness. I don't see how this is a "white savior." Most of the white people are killed ... the Ree are standing tall. I agree with Stellinagianntisi in many respects. Glass is shown originally as living in a Pawnee style home and at odds with white culture who has also killed his wife and tried to kill his son. Later he makes the statement that strips any authority or validity of whites by saying "I just killed a man who was trying to kill my son." Really most all the white are represented flawed and end up dead. There is no saving, no redeeming I think this movie does a lot more than typical Hollywood.

Ahbehmonii Sohkomii
Ahbehmonii Sohkomii
Submitted by Ahbehmonii Sohkomii on
I must say, that he L.D. was no saviour of the 'Indian" . He had his own agenda. I see this as opportunity for our nations too capitalize on with what fame we have been given. our people need alot of work. and it's not gonna happen overnight. I wonder if he is gonna say anything at the oscars? Jada Pinkett Smith is Boycotting because none of her people are even nominated. has he electrified the original people and hopefully started something essential? I hope so. Our people need to be more supportive of each other wherever and whatever they are doing. it's tough to look at them caucasians for support because of trust issues. its hard too give them a chance.

verawest's picture
Submitted by verawest on
As much as I absolutely agree and resonate with these insanely astute insights, I also have to defend that story being told is actually one about the land- the consumption and defilement and the land and animals. It's about purity. The story when looked at through the American Hollywood lens, is absolutely perceived as "a white heroic tale", but the story is actually exposure. The opening see was actually the most brutal for me. Blood, guts everywhere... consumption of the animal for monetary gain. I don't think Leo is a defender of the people, he's an environmentalist which is why he is not there to fight the cause of the indigenous, he is "fighting" his own cause with his own motives, they just happened to be related...it's neither here no there is just is what it is and it is definitely no Brando. The Land and consumption is the component I would add to this is the land.

Michael Madrid's picture
Michael Madrid
Submitted by Michael Madrid on
I'll reserve judgement until I see it myself, but I'm certainly hoping it DOESN'T end up being another "Dances with the Last Samurai."

BWilson's picture
Submitted by BWilson on
*Spoilers* The white savior issue . . . . I just didn’t see it in this film. Yes, Leo’s character does rescue Powaqa from her rapist, but ultimately, she is the one who exacts the revenge. In this case, I just saw another human being helping out another human being from a terrible situation. Also, you could use the same argument for Will Poulter’s character who left food for her when they were at the decimated camp. If this is a problem for some, then it’s a relatively small problem for an otherwise completely flawless film that has numerous scenes of indigenous people that will stay with you long after you leave the theater. One of the strongest being Hugh’s relationship with his son, Hawk. Every moment they appear on screen together is outstanding, and it was heartbreaking to see it end so quickly. And although Hugh is clearly loyal to his own people, he also seems to harbor an extreme resentment, well before Hawk’s murder. His journey across the frozen Earth is motivated by many other tragedies directly caused by the whites, not just his son’s murder. Ultimately, I think the entire argument is a rather petty one considering how wonderful it is to see indigenous people on the big screen again in this remarkable film. So many other things work here, and audiences are definitely responding by making it a box office hit world wide. Interesting, the most discussed moment in this film, in addition to the bear scene, is when Hugh places a piece of moss in Hawk’s mouth. People are genuinely fascinated and curious about the significance of that scene. It was a small, quiet moment, that would be missed if you blinked your eyes, but it is another moment of native culture introduced to us by this film, in a world that has been so completely clueless about native culture for such a long time. Also, the bison skulls scene. So glad to see this was finally acknowledged! A lot of people don’t realize that mountain of bison skulls was an actual thing not too long ago, and this film has actually gotten them talking about it. It’s these moments of enlightenment that we should relish, and not focus on the negatives so much. Ultimately, The Revenant is an amazing film that will be cherished and viewed for years to come. And hopefully, by everyone.

mem's picture
Submitted by mem on
Make no mistake - Hollywood has always been used for propaganda. Ever since they realized how much influence movies had over humanity, they have used movies towards their own gain & benefit. What is good about this is that they have kept a record of their own prejudice. Whenever possible they made sure that "Americans" are shown as light skinned & light eyed - so that is what the world has accepted as American. However, we all know that is actually what a western European looks like, not an American. They are masters at propaganda and deceit make no mistake any time a movie comes out it is sure to depict the white man as acceptable to the present generations mentality & others are close but just a tad less when it comes to wisdom, intellect, bravery,sensitivity or anything related to mankind's relationship to earth or others. Their history is evil & ugly and they have become desperate to keep their place in the world as a decent people however what is coming to light as their treatment of others in the world is something they will not be able to hide too much longer. Even today the networks & Hollywood make sure that light eyes are given priority when displayed to the world. The propaganda has worked so well that the world has actually accepted "Paper Americans" as real. If you're not from a Mexican tribe, Indian tribe, or Inuit tribe - you're not a real north American but a paper American, documented & forced by paperwork.

turbojesus's picture
Submitted by turbojesus on
Yeah I think there's a lot of ideas going on in this movie. I don't particularly contend to know them all and really don't care to know any of them. Usually, I think terms of the platitudes of history like "History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake". By the time the line came around, it was already cliche. As the idea was old by the time Virgil wrote the Aeneid to delegitimize certain classics which happened to have a white savior complex too. Take someone else's narrative history and use it as propaganda. I tended to conflate the idea that Glass was either in this dream or nightmare state as the movie cut away to images of some native woman. I think of other meaningless remarks like "Venus in Furs" maybe there's some sort masochistic male fantasy involved. I'm sure there are all sorts of false consciousness ideas that people can have a field day with. All the nonsense statements redoubled rebounded contradicted inverse converse