On These Amazing Shadows

A run of the mill advertisement for the National Film Registry, which is an admirable foundation (a subset of the Library of Congress) with a fascinating group of films covering a surprisingly wide range of American film.  The doc is all talking heads and movie clips, but the clips are great and some of the heads are inspired (Nina Paley!, The Self-Styled Siren!, George Takei!).  Unfortunately, the last 20 minutes devolves into a minority roundup, with boxes checked for marginalized groups the Registry recognizes: documentaries, animation, experimental film, women directors, African and Native Americans, etc.  This wouldn’t be so bad, merely plainly schematic and a bit pandering, if they didn’t pair The Searchers with The Birth of a Nation as racist films that are countered in turn by The Exiles and Boyz N the Hood.  Setting aside the fact that Boyz N the Hood is a pretty lame film, the mistreatment of The Searchers is criminal.  And it’s not just the filmmakers at fault, though they include clips from the film taken out of context to prove how racist Hollywood was against Indians (which is kinda the point of the film but never mind), they get a Native American studies professor to talk about it, though it’s unclear if they’ve misedited him.  No, the worst is Charles Burnett, director of the marvelous Killer of Sheep, talking about how he never knew how racist The Searchers was until he watched it with a friend who walked out in the middle of it.  When he asked her what was wrong, she asked “Can’t you see all the racism?”  I don’t know which is worse, Burnett for not realizing the film was about racism despite seeing it several times, or the woman drawing such an extreme conclusion after walking out halfway through.  I don’t know how this idea that one of the most complex, powerful and moving indictments of racism ever to come out of Hollywood was in fact racist itself merely because it showed acts of racism in all their ugliness, but this kind of thing has got to stop.  And equating this with one of the most vile perversions of the art form in its history?  Unconscionable.

12 thoughts on “On These Amazing Shadows

  1. Dear Sean,
    I am one of the directors of the documentary, 'These Amazing Shadows.' Thank you for taking the time to review our film. We apologize for not being aware of your review when it was originally posted. We do take issue with some of your comments. Our goal was not to make a film that only focused and commented on the obvious. We did make a specific effort to include many points of view in our story. I guess one person's 'minority roundup' (as you called it) is another person's appreciation of inclusion and a broad-minded approach to storytelling. The movies are an extremely powerful cultural force and form of storytelling. And, unfortunately, has been used in some cases by the dominate culture to diminish and marginalize people. Michael Smith is not a 'Native American Studies professor' (as you identified him), but is head of the Native American Film Institute whose goal is to 'foster understanding of the culture, traditions and issues of contemporary Native Americans.' His interview was not 'misedited.' When he says in our film that he wouldn't want his daughter to see, 'The Searchers,' he is speaking directly to his life experience that film has misrepresented and distorted the view of American Indians. His powerful statement is a point-of-view that you seem to have not taken the time to try and understand or appreciate. To do so requires stepping out of your own experience and to see life from another person's point-of-view (which we allude to in our section on 'To Kill a Mockingbird' when Atticus Finch explains that concept to his daughter, Scout, while sitting on their front porch swing). When Charles Burnett viewed 'The Searchers' with an American Indian woman (he clearly states that in our film – it was not just a 'friend') he, for the first time, learned that there was another way of looking at that film. Prior to that experience he viewed and accepted the film as most people do – without criticism or question. For you to dismiss a legitimate point-of-view of 'The Searchers' that conflicts with your own, I feel, is not very fair. To engage in healthy disagreement is wonderful. That is part of the purpose of film – to generate discussion and for us to learn from each other. We feel your comments don't seem to be in the spirit of a healthy discussion. In ending we would like you to know that we agree with most film lovers that 'The Searchers' is an amazing film. Beautifully shot, wonderfully acted, and powerfully directed. And, that the central power of a great film is to provide an amazing window to the world and into other people's lives.
    Kurt Norton


  2. Mr. Norton,

    I'd like to reiterate that I believe that the National Film Registry is a wonderful thing, and I applaud the choices you made in many of the talking heads in your film, which shows a willingness to look outside the critical mainstream to new and underrepresented groups. Similarly, my criticism of the last 20 minutes of your film stem not from its highlighting of minority points-of-view, but rather a disappointment that running time restrictions (I assume) left little time to explore these subjects in depth, leading to a feeling of box-checking.

    I regret the error in misidentifying Mr. Smith and am happy to know his interview was not distorted in editing, though I am disappointed to learn that he clings to the false and pernicious reading of The Searchers that I feel your film celebrates.

    It's certainly clear that Ford's film is a controversial one, but your film paints an unsupportable picture of the movie. The Searchers is one of the most profound and deeply complex expressions of anti-racist sentiment in the studio era, by one of Native America's strongest supporters in Hollywood, a man respected and beloved for many years by the Navajo of Monument Valley. But yes, a complicated man, one who does not easily fit into the black and white, racist and non-racist, right-left divisions that have become so dominant in our discourse about art and politics.

    Your film could have presented the same anecdotal experiences paired with pro-Searchers voices, and thus fostered discussion. Or it could have made exactly the same point by referencing any number of Hollywood Westerns that were actually racist and would prove your point much more effectively. God knows there's no shortage of movies with deplorable depictions of Native Americans. (I critiqued George Sidney's 1950 film Annie Get Your Gun on exactly these grounds, shortly after my review of your film was posted, in fact.) As it is, you pair it with Birth of a Nation equating Ford's masterpiece with one of the most vile creations in cinema's history. That, to me, is unconscionable. Asserting racism and offering only the evidence of personal feelings does nothing to foster discussion. A feeling can't be refuted.

    I'll leave you with the words of a critic far better than me, Kent Jones, responding to Quentin Tarantino's grossly uninformed comments about John Ford late last year in Film Comment:

    “The mistake has always been to look for the paternalistic, find it in Ford’s work, and then make the leap that it is merely so. If there’s another film artist who went deeper into the painful contradictions between solitude and community, or the fragility of human bonds and arrangements, I haven’t found one. To look at Stagecoach or Rio Grande or The Searchers and see absolutely nothing but evidence of the promotion of Anglo-Saxon superiority is to look away from cinema itself, I think. In Stagecoach and Rio Grande, the “Indians” are a Platonic ideal of the enemy—every age has one, one can find the same device employed throughout the history of drama, and in countless other Westerns. As for The Searchers, the film becomes knottier as the years go by. The passage with Jeffrey Hunter’s Comanche wife Look (Beulah Archuletta) is just as uncomfortable as the courtroom banjo hijinks in The Sun Shines Bright, particularly the moment when Hunter kicks her down a sandbank—but the comedy makes the sudden shift to relentless cruelty, and the later discovery of Look’s corpse at the site of a Cavalry massacre of the Comanches, that much more shocking.”


  3. Sean,
    Now this has become a healthy discussion! Thank you for your thoughtful response. I happen to think we both have strong points. No point-of-view is perfect. Even your own example from Kent Jones describes 'The Searchers' as becoming 'knottier as the years go by.' I have to say I do value personal feelings. Or, more to the point I believe direct personal life experience can be very valuable and can foster discussion. I think Michael Smith's life as a Native American is relevant. You may not agree with his interpretation of what he has experienced in life – but it is relevant if you trust he is a reasonable person. We do. In closing, let me add the often cited on the web connection between John Ford and “The Birth of a Nation.' Ford was an uncredited extra playing a Klansman who lifts up his hood to see clearly (Source: PEARY, Gerald (Ed) (2001):John Ford Interviews. Jackson,University Press of Mississippi). Does his appearance as an extra in that vile film mean anything? Was he just an hungry actor willing to play any part? Was he a young aspiring director hoping to observe D.W. Griffith at work? Did he support the ideas promoted in the film? I don't know. But they are very interesting questions about a man who had a profound influence on American culture – who helped shape American culture. A man long dead but whose work is still being discussed by intelligent people in the 21st Century (that's you and me, btw). That is wonderful! Part of a documentary filmmaker's job is to be brave enough to question conventional beliefs – if they have a good faith belief what they are presenting has merit. For us not to do so, that is 'unconscionable.' Thank you so much for this interesting exchange of ideas. We love your passion for film and dedication to sharing your ideas through your blog. We wish you the best.
    Kurt Norton


  4. Did you know that RON HOWARD was in THE MUSIC MAN? Does his appearance in that film mean anything? Was he just an hungry actor willing to play any part? Was he a young aspiring director hoping to observe Buddy Hackett at work? Did he support the ideas promoted in the film? I don't know.


  5. Did you know that SYLVESTER STALLONE was in BANANAS? Does his appearance in that film mean anything? Was he just an hungry actor willing to play any part? Was he a young aspiring director hoping to observe Woody Allen at work? Did he support the ideas promoted in the film? I don't know.


  6. Raoul Walsh played John Wilkes Booth in Birth of a Nation. I do not think this means The Strawberry Blonde has a sneaky pro-assassin agenda.

    Jones is quite right that The Searchers is “knotty”. I only wish your film had acknowledged that complexity in Ford's vision of American history, and of the various forms of racism that lie at the heart of America's myths about itself.


  7. Sean,
    I think you've made a good point about the need to acknowledge the complexity in Ford's vision of American history. When discussing the work of a filmmaker that has shaped America's view of itself it would have been better to flesh things out more than we did. Right you are.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.