By Brian Nixon, Exclusive to ASSIST News Service
ALBUQUERQUE, NEW MEXICO (ANS — November 19, 2017) — Recently I shared the stage at an event called Expose at the University of New Mexico with the actress Amber Midthunder. Amber plays Kerry Loudermilk, a mutant-superhero on FX’s Legion, a series connected to Marvel Comics’ X-Men. Legion follows David Haller, a patient in a ward who appears to have schizophrenia but really discovers he has superpowers.
The actor Dan Stevens plays Haller. David’s co-patient is Kerry Loudermilk. Kerry displays a superpower that has some sort of transmutation property, the ability to be absorbed into another person. In addition to her superpower, Kerry is a skilled fighter. Legion is still fairly young (season 1completed this year), so Amber’s character has yet to flower into full strength. Hopefully, we’ll see Amber — and her character — bloom as the series grows. Legion received critical acclaim, with a follow-up ten-episode season scheduled for a February 2018 release.
But the power of absorption is pertinent to Amber. In a 40-minute discussion at the University of New Mexico (UNM), she was able to absorb us into her life as an actress, person of faith, and down-to-earth lady of Native American decent working in Hollywood. And over the course of her talk, she was able to give us a glimpse into how she balances her faith and profession. Amber mentioned that her faith provides a foundation for all she does: from the roles she chooses to the commitment of excellence she seeks for each role she works on. If I were to summarize her talk it would be with three words (as echoed by St. Paul): faith — her belief informs her work and life, hope — she lives in hopeful expectation for upcoming roles and the yearning to be a light in whatever role she takes, and love — she loves what she does and truly seeks to love others around her.
Yet it was a few of her passing comments that caught my attention the most. As an actress of Native American decent, Amber gave a glimpse into the rarity of a Native American actress playing a role in a non-western movie or TV series such as Legion. And though Amber did not dwell on this fact, I was appreciative that she mentioned it. And other than some Native-centric roles for Adam Beach (a Canadian First Nations actor), I can’t recall a Native American actor or actress having a lead role in a non-Western movie or TV series. There may be some out there, but I am unaware. Amber may be one of the first.
Amber’s father — who was in the audience — is David Midthunder, a Fort Peck Sioux actor known for a host of Western-inspired movies and TV shows. Amber’s mother is Angelique Midthunder, a casting agent, filmmaker, and activist. Angelique is of mixed-Asian decent.
How Hollywood categorizes Native Americans in film came into focus when I was talking with David after the presentation, though through no intention or agenda of Midthunder. When I said to David that I’ve seen him in several movies, he asked—“One of the bad guys?” I looked at him quizzically, not knowing all the roles he’s played. David responded, “I’m cast as a bad guy a lot. But believe me, I’m not one; I’m actually quite nice.” We laughed. Then David told me about a recent trip to Europe he and Angelique took. During a taxi ride the driver asked where they came from. When they said America, the driver asked—but where did your family originate? David tried to explain that his people are the original Americans. The driver didn’t understand. Either thinking Native Americans went into extinction or didn’t know that North America had an indigenous culture, the taxi driver was loss for words. Either way, it was reflective of how many people and industries view Native Americans—either absent or as monochromatic pictures of the past. David and I then move on to discuss the contents of ontology, unpacked during my presentation at the event, of which David gave great insight.
But my conversation with David got me thinking.
If you’re anything like me you grew up watching Western movies. John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Gary Cooper, and James Stewart were an ever-present presence on screen, epitomizing the budding growth of the west, a Euro-centric view of expansion. In these movies, Native Americans were sometimes portrayed with dignity and humanity (think of the Outlaw of Josey Wales), but most of the time Native Americans were portrayed as savages to be tamed, falling prey to stereotypes and a misunderstanding of the various tribes and people groups found within North America.
But as with most Western movies — either with a positive or negative portrayal of Native Americans — the white guy was the hero or main focus. As an example, think of the positive portrayal of Native Americans in Dances With Wolves. Even with an affirmative portrayal of Native Americans, Kevin Costner was still the main voice and character; Native Americans were a backdrop to his story. And if you were to look behind the screen to the directors, screenwriters, and producers of most Hollywood films, Native voices are relatively absent.
That is until Smoke Signals came out in 1998.
Smoke Signals was a game changer. Not only were the lead actors and actresses Native American, but the writer of the script (award-winning, Sherman Alexie) and director (Chris Eyre) were Native Americans. It was a Native film, representing Native Americans in a real and relevant way. The story was told from the vantage point of Native America, but carried a universal theme of friendship, family, loss, and love. It’s a marvelous movie, one of my family’s favorite.
And though Smoke Signals helped change the landscape, the movement towards a broader, multi-American worldview has been slow. True, there are more Native actors and directors—as the Midthunder’s display, but a broader acceptance of Native American films and actors still has many hurdles to overcome.
And when you look at the history of Native American portrayal in film, it is a combination of sadness and ridiculousness. Historically, many Native American roles has been played by Caucasian people , and other roles — as mentioned above—are full of typecasts with a disregarded for the various people groups found within Native America, as the documentary Reel Injun reports . Stereotypes still exist.
But I rant.
To say the least I was pleased to meet the Midthunder family. Not only do I hope and pray that Amber is successful in her career as a woman of faith, but that as a woman of Native American heritage she can tear down some walls that have been standing far too long. How we need more Native American actors and actresses portraying contemporary people, not just pictures of the past!
Let’s pray Amber is one of many — a legion.
Photo captions: 1) Actor, David Midthunder. 2) Actress, Angelique Midthunder. 3) Midthunder Family. 4) Grant, Amber, and Brian at the Expose event. 5) Brian Nixon.
About the writer: Brian Nixon is a writer, musician, artist, and minister. He’s a graduate of California State University, Stanislaus (BA), Veritas Evangelical Seminary (MA), and is a Fellow at Oxford Graduate School (D.Phil.). To learn more, click here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brian_Nixon.
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