Sunday, April 26, 2015

Native American Actors Exit Set of Adam Sandler's 'The Ridiculous Six' in Protest

Adam Sandler on the set of Netflix's 'The Ridiculous Six'
Netflix has enjoyed huge success as a popular platform for distributing and providing content, and more recently they have altered the broadcast and cable media landscape as a content producer with award-winning original series like 'House of Cards' and 'Orange Is the New Black'.

In doing so they've not only opened the doors for other companies like Amazon to create original content, Netflix has devoted enormous resources to begin developing and producing their own original films as well.

While they have forced more traditional film and television companies and studios to rethink the way they allow consumers to access their content, a recent on-set incident has shown that the challenges of producing your own content are very different from simply paying licensing fees to bring other producer's content to consumers. 

As reported in an article by Vincent Schilling posted on the Website of the Indian Country Today Media Network Website last Thursday, a group of Native American actors as well as an on-set adviser hired to oversee cultural depictions, walked off the set of Adam Sandler's Netflix production, 'The Ridiculous Six' in protest of what they claim are racist and demeaning portrayals of Native Americans and traditional Apache tribal culture in the script of the film currently shooting in Las Vegas, New Mexico.    

White actor Henry Brandon as Scar in 'The Searchers' 1953
The prevalence of negative, limiting or one-dimensional depictions of Native American people in American films has been something of an ugly sore spot on our nation's cultural landscape for years.

With rare exception, up until the 1970's major Native American film characters were played by white actors, such as Henry Brandon (pictured left) who played the infamous blue-eyed murderous kidnapper of white women, Scar in the classic 1953 John Ford film 'The Searchers'.

Despite it's racist depictions of Native Americans, Ford's cinematic masterpiece is still widely considered one of the finest American films of the 20th century, one that offers a complex analysis of the main character, an angry Civil War veteran consumed by racism and hatred played by John Wayne who embarks upon an epic journey to find his white niece; who was kidnapped during a violent attack by Indians who committed unspeakable atrocities upon members of his family before murdering them.

Hollywood bears a lot of responsibility for simplistic portrayals of Native Americans as "blood-thirsty savages", drunken buffoons, docile superstitious imbeciles, or war-like barbarians.

Will Sampson as Chief in 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest'
But that began to change in the 1970's with the appearance of more complex and nuanced Native American characters colored with humanity in films like 'Little Big Man''One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest' (pictured left) and 'The Outlaw Josey Wales'.

More recently films like 'Dances With Wolves' and 'The Last of the Mohicans' offered new insight into the complexity of Native American culture in successful and critically-acclaimed films that managed to blend history, action/adventure and romance with compelling screenplays that forced film audiences to look at American history from a new perspective.

That's part of what makes the incident with Adam Sandler's film so puzzling.

Given all the publicity surrounding the ongoing controversy over the mascot name and logo of the Washington Redskins, you'd think the producers of a big-budget western comedy that contains Native American characters would be mindful of that (as well as Hollywood's history) in terms of how those characters are portrayed.

Even if 'The Ridiculous Six' (a spoof of 'The Magnificent Seven') is an Adam Sandler comedy (he co-wrote the script), is it really necessary to have a female Native American character named 'Beaver Breath'? Or have an Apache woman character smoking a peace pipe while squatting to pee?  

Can't Native American characters in comedy films be presented in respectful ways that don't sink to the lowest common denominator?

In light of a more organized and coordinated Native American media response to the Washington Redskins' controversy, the actors and cultural adviser who walked off the set last Wednesday have generated a good deal of online media attention since the story broke last Thursday.

'The Ridiculous Six' is a huge financial investment and a big risk for both Netflix and Adam Sandler.

With a cast that also includes Nick Nolte, Steve Buscemi, Dan Akroyd, Jon Lovits and former "rapper" Vanilla Ice, the walk-out by Native American actors during production is not just going to blow away.

Tribal leaders have already spoken out publicly about the film and the story is getting bigger coverage on the Web.

If the film's producers were smart, they'd immediately address the concerns expressed by Native American actors involved with the film, make some changes to the script, release a public statement with an apology, invite the actors who walked off the set back to the production and get on with filming before the controversy starts to overshadow the film itself.

Otherwise they could be facing the same kind of disastrous media flap that happened to Sony's comedy about the assassination of the North Korean leader 'The Interview' last December.

The Native American perspective on 'The Ridiculous Six' is perhaps best summed up by actor David Hill, a 74 year-old Choctaw and member of the American Indian Movement (AIM) who was one of those who walked off the set last week.

He was quoted in Vincent Schilling's article as saying of the producers; "They were being disrespectful. They were bringing up those same old arguments Dan Snyder uses in defending the (Washington) Redskins. But let me tell you, our dignity is not for sale....I hope they will listen to us. We understand this is a comedy, we understand this is humor, but we won't tolerate disrespect."

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