Stereotyping: Native Americans in the United States

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The issue of racial stereotyping in cinema has largely been discussed by critics over the course of cinematic history. The negative portrayal of the Native American, for example, is rampant in the early Western film genre. Native Americans are, more often than not, portrayed as vicious savages, hell-bent on senselessly scalping and murdering as many ‘innocent’ (white?) American settlers as possible. Individuals of a darker skin colour, such as the African American, are also victims of negative stereotyping in early cinema. They are usually portrayed as stupid, aggressive and primitive, as lesser than the ‘white man.’ Some directors have attempted to revise these inaccurate portrayals of minority groups. For example, Arthur Penn’s cinematic masterpiece entitled Little Big Man (1970) provides the audience with a more accurate depiction of the Native American from the mid-19th century, both visually and historically. Similarly, an effective film which does not patronize individuals of a darker skin color is Mike Leigh’s Secrets &ump; Lies (1996). Hortense, a woman of Anglo-Jamaican descent, is portrayed as more successful, wealthy and intelligent than the Caucasians in the film. Other directors have also attempted to portray these minority groups more accurately, yet seem to fall short of the achievements of the two movies previously mentioned. For example, John Ford’s The Searchers is Ford’s attempt at rectifying the negative portrayal of the Native American, a portrayal which he is partly responsible for introducing to mainstream cinema during the mid-20th century (Nolley, 73). Despite his efforts, there is still an excessive amount of racial prejudice towards the Native Americans within the film. Lee Daniels’ Precious is also an attempt to portray a young black female’s ‘rags-to-riches’ story, but the movie’s excessive incorporation of stereotypes makes it difficult for the optimistic message to be conveyed to the audience. In this paper, I will compare and contrast Little Big Man and The Searchers, along with Secrets and Lies and Precious, and argue that, despite their efforts, the movies Precious and The Searchers ultimately fail at portraying minority groups in a more accurate, positive and/or sympathetic way when compared to Little Big Man and Secrets &ump; Lies.  Little Big Man transforms the typical ‘Hollywood Indian’ image into a more accurate portrayal of the Native American. Providing the audience with the untold side of the story of the American West, Penn portrays the Cheyenne within the film as the victims of the Battle of Washita River, which occurred in 1868. The massacre was led by General Custer, lieutenant of the 7th U.S. Cavalry. The film depicts General Custer and his men intruding upon a peaceful Cheyenne encampment and brutally murdering men, women and children. Earlier cinematic Westerns depict the U.S. Cavalries, along with the Cowboy, as the heroes of the West, who protect the helpless American settlers from vicious ‘Indian’ invasions (Kasdan, Tavernetti 130). By contrast, it is now the Native Americans who are fleeing from the remorselessness of the U.S Cavalry, framing General Custer and the United States government as the villains of the film. This extreme role reversal was never accomplished so well before in cinema. The motif of the massacre deconstructs the cinematic myth of the West, of how it “was entirely heroic and unsullied, and exposes the historical realities of the nineteenth-century genocide of Native Americans.” (129). Despite the horrors they must suffer through as targets of the U.S Government, the Cheyenne still remain a strong and vigilant people, as one can see in the character of Old Lodge Skins, a visionary who is a strong leader to both the Cheyenne and Jack Crabb. Many customs and traditions are also demonstrated in detail within the film, an aspect of Native American culture which is rarely seen in earlier Westerns. All this visually explicit detail allows the...
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