Directed by Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr. (“Shinaab”), a member of Wisconsin’s Bad River Band of the Lake Superior Tribe of Chippewa, “Wild Indian” is a thoughtful film that tells a narrative about trauma and the experience of Native Americans but struggles to hit the mark. The film misses the resonant pitch needed to leave a lasting mark on the viewer. Corbine’s directorial debut leaves something to be desired, but the thematic and cultural content is undeniably rich and valuable.
At the beginning of the film, a young Native boy named Makwa (Michael Greyeyes, “Blood Quantum”), abused by his father, turns to violence as a coping mechanism. In a defining moment for Makwa and his cousin Ted-O (Chaske Spencer, “The Twilight Saga”), a schoolmate is murdered, and the two boys are marked by this trauma for the rest of their lives. Makwa moves to California and finds success as a businessman, changing his name to Michael, while Ted-O spends decades in and out of prison. When they encounter one another after a lifetime, that boyhood trauma is reenacted, in a way.
Trauma is a central theme throughout — intergenerational trauma is an unfortunate fixture of Indigenous culture in America, and that motif supports the plot of the film. The incorporation of intergenerational trauma employs negative, often stereotyped portrayals of Native Americans as violent people with substance abuse issues. Whether or not this sort of character is necessary to tell a story of intergenerational trauma is not immediately evident.
Greyeyes addressed the subject during the Q&A session after the film: “For a long time, Hollywood portrayed us in grotesque ways …” Through this film, he was able to “reclaim and recontextualize that portrayal” of the ‘violent Indian.’
Greyeyes’s character is defined by a violent streak, a killing instinct kept below the surface, exercised from time to time in a controlled manner. This instinct, in the context of the film, reads as a sort of warrior complex. Rooted in childhood traumas, Makwa/Michael’s sense of self is deeply marred by societal perspective and a sense of shame that borders on self-loathing.
In sharp contrast, Ted-O’s troubled life and time in prison belie his kindhearted nature and tremendous guilt. Whereas Makwa grew away from his home and past, turning to religion to mollify his own self-reproach, Ted-O has carried his regret as a silent onus for decades.
Both boys went to Catholic school, where a priest told a group of students in a chapel that “a tortured spirit is an unworthy sacrifice before God.” This scene juxtaposes Makwa and Ted-O with Cain and Abel, a dichotomy that forms the film’s key conflict. However, the characters seem at times to be too symbolic, too dichotomous to convince the viewer. No man is so simple as to be consistently complex.
The story is an important one, and the film is a victory for Native American representation in cinema. However, despite thematic grandeur, one can tell this filmmaker is a novice. The dialogue occasionally feels contrived and certain visual tropes fail to elevate the film to great heights.
In one of Corbine’s more successful artistic choices, the film is bookended by allegorical scenes from the past, of a Native man ill with smallpox, speaking to his mother. This more subtle allusion to intergenerational trauma and the many masks it wears throughout history is a valuable part of the film. Greyeyes also spoke about these scenes and the physical wounds suffered by his character throughout the film as literal embodiments of trauma.
There is a valuable story in “Wild Indian,” but much is missing. The characters, though fully developed, are given a calculated depth that feels artificial upon reflection. Stereotypes abound in the film, to varying effect and impact. Could we do without the alcoholism of Makwa’s father? Would physical abuse, or even the implied effects of having such young parents (his mother was 13 and his father 18 when Makwa was born) have been sufficient?
All told, “Wild Indian” starts an important conversation about the enduring hardships of Indigenous people in America. Unfortunately, the execution of this storytelling is flawed, and leaves the viewer wanting more. That said, Corbine certainly has more to say, and I imagine his future work will exceed and raise the standard set by his debut.
Daily Arts Writer Ross London can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.