Native Thoughts: The Magnificent 7 (2016)

So last night I went to the movies with my brother to watch “The Magnificent 7.” I’m a HUGE fan of the original 1960 movie. Yul Brenner, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, Robert Vaughn, and James Coburn plus you get one of the best soundtracks EVER (thanks Elmer Bernstein). It is a great western even for those who don’t like westerns. It is fantastic. Maybe it has to do with the cast; maybe it has to do with the source material, Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai; maybe it is just one of those times lightning finds the right bottle to fill. All I know is “The Magnificent Seven” is one of my favorites.

So when I heard about a remake my first thoughts were … “Why would you remake a classic? Why not just call it something else?” Oh Hollywood, you silly monkeys. I wasn’t that excited about it, nor was I really considering seeing it, but my brother wanted to go see the movie so I said, “Let’s watch it in IMAX in Recliners!!” It’s one of the few ways I like to watch movies.

Now, I’m not going to share with you much about the movie. I’m not a critic and my likes and dislikes are really odd at times. I will say, it was a fun movie that surprised me at moments. Does it replace my adoration of the original? Not even close, but it is a stellar cast and there are some really fun moments. My thoughts on this movie are more about the “Native Americans” rather than the thoughts of plot holes, thematic problems or other usual critic stuff. With all this talk about equality in Hollywood I thought I would discuss a little about the “Native” perspective (at least my native perspective).  Why don’t we have more Oscar, Emmy or Tony award winners? Who is our first to win instead of being paraded around as a political statement? Where are our roles in Television, Film and Theater?

The answer is pretty simple: We don’t have many opportunities. Whether that’s because of talent shortage, ideologies or perspectives things aren’t going to change unless … well … this is getting too political and I want to talk about the movie. So on to the film.

Let’s get Native

In the 1960 version the only real interaction with Native American culture is when we meet Yul and Steve’s characters for the first time. They ride the dead body of an “Indian” up to Boot Hill while bigots attempt to persuade them against doing so with guns. Well it’s a good thing we’re in 2016 because bigotry towards Native American’s is all but abolished. We are at shown as wise, intelligent individuals that live cultured lives. Long are the days of “How, white man!” Phew … what a horror show the 1960’s were.

In the 2016 movie we actually have Native American representation! Yippy Skippy! And when we first see our hero it’s … wait … the Native is on the evil side? Oh yeah … so Jonathan Joss portrays, Denali, who I guess is just a random native American the antagonist picked up along the way because he wanted a “Native” in his posse. You never really find out, he’s just there. He doesn’t really talk in the movie with one notable exception. In the final confrontation the bad guy (whose name I forgot) says, “Denali” and Jonathan Joss raises his hand in the air, gives a loud “Native Whoop” and sends the troops off towards our heroes. While he does significant interactions with our heroes during the final battle his character is little more than “I think we need a person with a bow and arrow in the movie.” Ah .. progress.

“But wait, Enoch!” I hear you guys saying out there, “What about the heroes! One of the seven is actually a Native American!” You speak the truth, invisible voice. In the whole of the Wild West they found two Native Americans: One for the Bad Guys and One for the Good Guys! Equality at it’s finest!

Unlike the other heroes in the movie, who were chosen for specific purposes, our hero Native American “Red Harvest,” portrayed by Martin Sensmeier, is stumbled upon during the heros journey back to the troubled township. In an odd choice as an introduction the amazing Denzel Washington is startled from his sleep, guns raised to a wild Vincent D’Onofrio saying, “I tracked him to you guys.” The heroic party then aims their guns towards an invisible intruder who appears from the only four wild bushes in the desert. He appears in full war paint with a dead deer on his horse (which also happens to be in war paint). The only thing really missing was the “war drums,” eagle feathers and his hair majestically flowing in the wind when he talked (which would be difficult since he had a Mohawk). Martin is one of the main seven so he does get a lot more lines, however, most of them are in “Comanche” which Denzel actually speaks. Phew … without him that could have been real messy. Denzel asks him to join his little motley crew because the symmetry of “good vs. bad” Native fighting is just to irresistible to pass up. And after gutting the deer to get it’s liver, both Martin and Denzel share a fine nibble of yet to be processed deer jerky. Martin does have a couple of speaking moments, but with fantastic lines like “White people food isn’t fit for dogs” and “My father said I travel a different path” it’s hard to understand motivation and reasoning for him wanting to hang out with mercenaries. I mean you can feel the authenticity of culture and the struggle of his backstory and …. well … you get the picture.

Culturally Significant Questions I Have

To be fair to both Jonathan and Martin, they did a great job with the roles. It’s just that the roles were so  … well … stifling. It’s good that the opportunity was given and definitely a long way from “The Searchers” (which is always good), but why create characters that don’t make sense? And the situations of the movie definitely left me with some questions that hopefully the Native Community might be able to shed some light. For instance:

Why only 2, Native Americans?

I know Columbus found America in 1492 and, even though there were MANY, MANY, people who lived here history only really started when the Mayflower arrived in 1620. Since the history of the Wild West didn’t really happen until 1848 with the California Gold Rush it is hard to believe that there were thriving Native American communities during the time of this movie. The possibility of seeing traces or landmarks or something else (including the possibility of trading with settlements to help them stay alive) is not that difficult to imagine. Both “Denali” and “Red Harvest” had to come from “somewhere,” even if one is a traitor to his people and the other is “on a different path” it doesn’t mean those people don’t exist. Or maybe it does … The backstory for these two characters is a little lacking. Is Denali an amazing tracker that the evil dude just had to have? Was Red Harvest’s father saying, “Since your path is so different from ours you better go out on your own and don’t come home?” Were Denali and Red Harvest brothers from another mother which made their parallel struggle to find personal understanding so important that the climactic moment when they meet allowed for universal truths to be exposed that only through their own ideological trials they could decipher the true profound meaning? Who knows. It just felt odd that in all of the movie there were only these two First Nation’s people.

Why is Red Harvest in War Paint?

Ok. So when we first meet Red Harvest he and his horse are wearing War Paint. Now I’m no Native American scholar, but if I remember my Dee Brown and Allan Eckert, War Paint was used as a ceremonial preparation for battle. Red Harvest was hunting, hence the deer, and didn’t really seem like he was going to fight anyone? It felt like some producer of the film decided, “No one will know he’s Indian!! We gave him a Mohawk not a ponytail!!! Put him in War Paint. Oh … and don’t forget the horse!” Contrary to popular belief … Native Americans don’t walk around with War Paint on ALL THE TIME! I mean it looks fantastic when we do it, but it’s time consuming and we have a lot of talking trees and raccoons with which we need to communicate. At the end of the film, when they actually go to war? It makes perfect sense. But when the dude is out with his horse on a spiritual journey and hunting?

How is the Native American “discovered” so easily?

This one kind of bugs me because it is an odd stereotype. Native Americans are always portrayed as “excellent” trackers and pathfinders. Yet, for whatever reason, they are always being discovered incredibly easily. I concede that Vincent is older and could have more experience tracking, but isn’t this Red Harvest’s home turf? You would think knowledge of the area and cultural training would play some part in skill. While everyone else was eating beans, the dude caught a deer … in the freaking desert! Yet he hides behind four bushes and is tracked all night? Something feels off here, but maybe it’s just me.

Even though there are a plethora of guns around why use bow and arrows?

So maybe we can blame the Marvel Universe for this, since Hawkeye likes to use bow and arrows during alien fights. Possibly it was the directors thought, “Marvel makes it work! We should have a bow and arrow guy? Give it to the Native! It’ll set him apart!” Maybe it was something else. All I know is both Denali and Red Harvest liked to use bow and arrows; Not knives or tomahawks or even atlatls. Sure Red Hawk used a gun AFTER he used all his arrows, but it seems like something you might want to consider before. If anything the reload time of the rifles were much faster than knocking single arrows. Not that it doesn’t make for interesting fight scenes, but only at a distance. While you had some amazing knife skills with Bryung-hun Lee’s character, it’s all to often that people forget Native American warriors are quite skilled close quarter combat fighters. I mean not all of our battles were fought over distances. We do understand something about close tactical combat.

Where does Red Harvest Go during the preparation phase?

This is a confusing moment for me during the film. The Heroes come into town and wreak havoc on the Bad Guy’s bad guys (I love that phrase). After which they tell the sheriff to go tell the evil dude “if he wants the town back he has to take it from us!” After that Denzel tells the town folk, “We have seven days!” (Magnificent Seven? hmmm?) “Lord evil lives 3 days ride from here. He’ll need 1 day to prepare, and then it’ll take him 3 days to get here.” So now we have a time frame. So now the preparation of the town starts to happen. The first day is spent on tactical outline of the plan. While the second day is spent on trying to get the town ready for the plan and training of the town ship. It’s during this time that Denzel is seen talking to Red Harvest where heads nod and Red Harvest rides his horse OUT OF TOWN!!! The next time we see him he comes riding back into town to say “The evil militia is about a day 1/2 out.” So I’m assuming that Red Harvest is an excellent scout and that sending him away for 5-6 days to scout where the bad guys are coming from is a great use of his skill set. It has to be instead of saying something like “Is your tribe near by and think you might be persuasive enough to get them to help us fight?” Or. since it has been stated earlier he feels at home near green shrubbery, perhaps saying something like “Think you could do some crafty trickery near that tree line to help us thin the crowd a little?” Either of those options seem a to have a little more sense of the strategic instead of just, “Hey go and be the lookout because we really don’t know what to do with your character except give him a stereotypical device like, ‘You’re an amazing tracker/scout’ which we totally ruined by having you spotted by everybody in your introduction?” It’s nitpicky for sure, but wouldn’t it have been cool to actually see Native warfare from a different perspective?

What happened to the deer?

My brother heard me say this a couple of times during the movie. It kind of bothered me. When you meet Red Harvest he has a deer over his horse. He guts the animal and shares the liver with Denzel. Afterwards, Denzel tells the rest of the group “Eat some breakfast! We need to leave.” The next scene is the gang riding through the desert to get to the town. The noticeable difference … there is no deer! I mean I’m not expecting to see a deer carcass just bobbing up and down on the horse, but no hide, or meat or traces of it anywhere?  Ok … even if Red Harvest travels a “different path” did he abandon the idea of “use the whole animal?” It was a WHOLE DEER! And granted there were 7 additional men and 1 woman, but DANG that’s still a lot of meat! And what about the hide? Warmth, trade, shelter … these are all things you could have done with the hide. There is definitely an argument to be made for not carrying the bones around with you, but the hide and meat? That just seems so wasteful.

Final Thoughts About the Film

I understand these are nit-picky things to look at in a movie. The amount of Native American screen time wasn’t as long as you would think so I had to look at something. And since I’m a little more aware of Native American’s portrayals in movies, I might be over sensitive a little. Also this was only my first viewing so I could have definitely missed underlying themes of oppression and metaphysical internal struggles and strife. But it does go to show that our stereotypical view of Native Americans may need a little tweaking before we become truly authentic.

The film, like I said previously, was fun … a solid B – B+ film. And thankfully it did have roles for Native Americans portrayed by Native Americans and not Johnny Depp, which is not something you can say about a lot of modern media.

I know most of the people, if not everybody, watching the film will probably not notice anything that I did. That’s ok … I guess. I mean we still teach the first people to discover America were the Vikings around 1000 AD. The fact that Native Americans were here to welcome them seems to ironically get overlooked. I know I’m not the voice of the American Indian … I’m not even a light “sigh” of the American Indian. But I would like to think if I see some of these questionable items and possibly mention them out loud that other people may start to question the authenticity of the Native American portrayals. We don’t have a Sixteen Candles’ Long-duk-dong to point to and go “Whoa, What are you thinking?” Our struggle comes because a lot of people don’t know or understand the little things about the Native experience. And if we can understand the experience a little better possibly our roles can become better. And when we get better roles the possibility of having our Hattie McDaniel/Halle Berry/Louis Gossett Jr./Sidney Poitier moments can occur!

Until then I’ll be watching for those Native Roles and trying to share my point of view. Go out and hug yourself a Native American!!!

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