Film Reviews

Dances with Wolves and Avatar have drawn the attention of many critics, academics, newspapers, bloggers and media sources. Below is a compilation of reviews and commentary on the films.

Reviews of Dances with Wolves

“Kevin Costner Journeys to a New Frontier”

Morais describes Costner’s dedication to creating Dances with Wolves, which included efforts to incorporate authentic language and costumes, hundreds of animals, and beautiful landscapes in the American West. Morais speculates that Costner is likely to receive praise for his portrayal of the Sioux and Pawnee peoples, though Costner himself tries to avoid such politicization. The story’s convincing plot and basis in history were Costner’s primary motivators, and he was successful in developing a wide array of characters and a compelling setting. Read the full article here: http://www.nytimes.com/packages/html/movies/bestpictures/wolves-ar1.html

Richard Morais, The New York Times, November 4, 1990

 

“Kevin Costner’s Dance With the Sioux: How the director and star achieved authenticity in his unusual film tribute to the Sioux, `DancesWith Wolves’”

This articles discusses Costner’s dedication to portraying the Sioux culture properly. Throughout production, efforts were made to support the Native American community. The film hired Doris Leader Charge, a Sioux professor, to translate the screenplay and teach the actors Sioux. They scoured library resources and consulted indigenous peoples for costumes, music, and ritual dances. Despite the many hours attempting authenticity, Native American actors claimed that some areas “bend the truth.” Costner also battled producers in the final editing of the film and claimed “the scenes they wanted me to cut were often why the movie was made. It wasn’t for the big buffalo scenes.” After the film was released, Cheryl Crazy Bull, a Sioux, described the film as a risk, but one that portrayed natives as human beings. In addition, she commented,

“To see the laughter and the dignity. . . . We don’t have that now. We have poverty and sadness. I guess the movie just reminds us of what could have been.”

While the film has become a classic, its impact on current indigenous poverty has yet to be seen. Read the full article here: LAT 28 october 1990

Geraldine Baum, Los Angeles Times, 10/28/1990

 

“Dances With Wolves Star Had to Learn New Dialect”

In this article, actor Graham Greene (Kicking Bird in Dances with Wolves) discusses his experiences with learning a new language for his role.  As an Oneida Indian unfamiliar with the Lakota Indian language used in the film, Greene explains this new learning as “as much of a challenge as dealing with the heat and cold on the set.”  While the existence of Native American actors as players of Native American characters might seem like enough to describe the film as “one of the few honest cinematic portrayals of Native Americans” to Orion Pictures, does the need for Greene’s language assimilation into Hollywood’s one-size-fits-all image of a Native American complicate the honesty? Read the full article here:  Toronto Star Nov 1990

Toronto Star, 11/19/1990

 

“Movie Reviews: Dances with Wolves”

This review interprets Dances with Wolves as the first important environmentalist Western.

“The film uses a mythic western past to criticize twentieth-century relations of people and nature and to present an imagined alternative. It uses Indians as conventional environmentalist symbols and creates animals as other, equivalent symbols.”

While White writes that the Western structure is the same, the development of characters allows history to be told through a lens of current issues. White agrees with many critics that the portrayal of the Lakota Sioux was well done, but further praises the film for its explemplary portrayal of nature. Read the full article here: White_Review of Dances with Wolves_1991

Richard White, University of Washington, Gateway Heritage, Spring 1991

 

“Dances With Wolves Offers an Alternative View on How the West Was Won”

Editor Andrew Clarke describes how Dances with Wolves breaks the Hollywood-set boundaries of filmmaking, permitting a progressive narrative and purpose to emerge.  He explains that the narrative “is not sentimentalized at all” and believes that the film represents an honest, genuine story of Native American life.  Although one might say that the plot of Dances with Wolves certainly follows the stereotypical “white guilt” or “white savior” narrative, Clarke takes on more optimism, reading it as “an apology for past wrongs and an acknowledgement that perhaps the so-called coming of civilisation wasn’t as wonderful as the settlers thought it was.”  Read the full article here: Eastern Daily Press-DWW Alternate View on how the west was won, 12_7_17

Eastern Daily Press, 12/07/2017

 

“Progress for Indians Is a Film Fantasy Native Americans: The Reality is a 45% Poverty Rate and 35% Unemployment Rate. U.S. Policy Undermines the Potential.”

George Miller explores the existence of a heightened sense of progressiveness as a result of Hollywood’s depictions of Native Americans in contrast with their physical reality in the United States.  Particularly, he notes the real-life lack of progress today that was present with the Native Americans in Costner’s Dances with Wolves.  While films like this do bring about beneficial aspects, like spiked interest in and awareness of Native American culture, Miller expresses the desire to see individuals and policymakers work to make further progress in the quest for Native American rights and autonomy.  This article dives into the specific details of the agencies associated with “Indian matters,” as well as addresses the statistics associated with Native Americans’ current statuses in the United States. Read the full article here: LAT_reality for Indians_LAT March 1990

George Miller, Los Angeles Times, 03/26/1991

“Hollywood’s Noble Indians: Are We Dancing with Myths?” 
Valentine writes that in Costner’s attempts to humanize and glorify Native Americans, he perhaps overcompensated for the negative stereotypes and created an unrealistically noble depiction of Native Americans. While Costner’s intentions were admirable, Valentine documents their many violent and destructive practices. Costner does not acknowledge that customs varied greatly between tribes, and Valentine suggests that we should be wary of grouping them all together in a romanticized fashion. Overall, he argues that the invasion of white Europeans to North America did not really change the amount of violence over the possession of land; it simply changed who was fighting. Read the full article here: Link to Article
Paul Valentine, Washington Post, March 31, 1991

 

Reviews of Avatar

“Avatar is the First Broadband Blockbuster”

Stevens compares Avatar to other movies that speculate about the impact of technology on society, such as The Matrix, The Terminator, and Robocop. With time, Stevens suggests that Avatar may ascend to the level of prestige of these movies given its tremendous special effects. In 3-D, Stevens discusses the ways in which Avatar really is a masterpiece: there are floating mountains, hovering “jellyfish-like floating seeds,” immaculate animals, and many more elements that truly pop out in 3-D. Though the film does contain some cheesy moments, its production quality makes it stand out. Read the full article here: http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/movies/2009/12/cat_power.html

Dana Stevens, Slate.com, December 6, 2009

 

“Wes Studi Talks Cherokee History, Avatar and Hell on Wheels”

This article includes an interview with Dances with Wolves and Avatar Cherokee actor, Wes Studi. When asked about using the idea of indigenous people against technology in Avatar, Wes Studi responded “this story has been told many times before, but that’s because this is something that’s happened many times before. And it continues to happen. The plot has a direct correlation to many westerns — only this was a western up in space, and in the future.” This supports the creation of movies like Avatar by indigenous actors because their idealized and simplified creation do hold important aspects of truth that are reminiscent of the native experience. Read the full article here: Wes Studi Talks Cherokee History, Avata… Wheels – Indian Country Media Network_2012

Vincent Schilling, Indian Country Today Media Network, 7/20/2012

 

“Avatar and American Indian Spiritually”

This blogger explored the connections in Avatar to American Indian spirituality. Although Cameron’s main intentions for the movie was environmentalism, Ojibwa points out that the plot is very similar to Native American experience with American government and corporations. They describe animism and the belief that everything on the planet is alive and has a soul.

“In Avatar the communication with other living things is made by a direct link, while among Native Americans and other indigenous people here on Earth, this communication is done via dreams.”

Other connections Ojibwa makes is to the interconnectedness of living beings and natural healing powers of the Earth. The parallel between American attempts at trade alliances and conversion to Christianity is also compared to the Avatar program’s military purpose to spy on the Na’vi. Developing and exploiting natural resources leading to environmental degradation at the expense of natives is probably the most obvious message of the movie in relation to American history. Read the full article here: Ojibwa: Avatar & American Indian Spirituality

Ojibwa, Daily Kos, 1/2/2010

 

“Avatar is NOT Dances with Wolves”

This article draws upon the reviews claiming that Avatar is a fancy, futuristic remake of Dances with Wolves and jokingly debunks them in at attempt to point out that the two resemble each other.  The differences noted here are very, very slight.   The first point is that John Dunbar’s war injury is vastly different from Jake Sully’s spinal injury in a different branch of the military. The second is that Stands with a Fist and Neytiri are wholly different characters because the former is not actually a native of the culture the hero is joining. Another argument is that Dances with Wolves is not directly about exploitation of natural resources, like in Avatar. The other points mention the parallels of use of native language, the integration of the hero, and the central role of the hero in saving the native peoples. While this article pulls upon minutia and does not full explain its rebuttal against film comparisons, it does distinctly outlines some of the obvious comparisons between the films. Read the full article here: Gunaxin_Avatar is NOT Dances With Wolves_2010

Gunaxin, 1/25/2010

 

“Avatar hit by accusations of racism”

This article claims that Avatar is a “white Messiah fable” because many of the Na’vi are played by African or Native Americans. This “suggests that non-whites are primitives incapable of helping themselves” because Jake Sully is a white/Euro-American hero coming to save the Na’vi.  The arguments follow the stereotypes that “whites” are technocratic and civilized, while the athletic natives are more spiritual and undeveloped. Despite these claims of problematic representation, Avatar made one of the largest cinematic profits in history. Read the full article here: Singh_Avatar racism – Daily Telegraph_2010

Anita Singh, Daily Telegraph, 1/11/10

 

“The War-Painted, Dragon-Riding Smurfs vs. the Indians”

In this article, author Michael Thompson presents a new (and interesting) perspective on Cameron’s Avatar.  Rather than diving into the representations of native life in Avatar that most other reviews dissect, Thompson steps back and refutes any parallel between the technological beings in Avatar and Native Americans or Indians.  Instead, he identifies the film exclusively with the science fiction genre, explaining that

“it takes more than feathers to make an Indian” and that “…cultural traditions don’t come via simulation modules. That being Indian is less genetic engineering, and more simply seeing, simply hearing, and simply being.”

Before we go on to analyze the authenticity and legitimacy of Avatar’s depictions as they relate to Native American history, Thompson’s opinions recommend that we question whether or not any correlation can even be made.

Read the full article here: Thompson-Indian Country Media Network-2010

Michael Thompson, Indian Country Today, 01/20/2010

 

“The Messiah Complex”

Here David Brooks states that Avatar uses its socially conscious emphasis on the natural environment to hide the fact that it is an archetypal white messiah narrative. The film’s native people, the Na’vi, are just like the native group in many similar films – they are athletic, nearly naked, and good at singing and dancing. Brooks argues that Avatar becomes a problematic white fantasy when Jake Sully quickly rises through the Na’vi ranks in a way that native members of the tribe cannot. Ultimately, the Na’vi are without self-determination; Brooks writes that they “can either have their history shaped by cruel imperialists or benevolent ones.” Read the full article here: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/08/opinion/08brooks.html

David Brooks, The New York Times, January 7, 2010

 

“The paradoxical politics of ‘Avatar’”

This review points out that despite the success of the movie, “the real-world survival struggles of indigenous peoples are safely invisible.” Throughout history and the present, there have been many native conflicts and Weinberg argues Cameron does not bring light to real issues and dying cultures. This review lists multiple international indigenous conflicts currently happening throughout the world in contrast to the “geeks and popcorn-heads throughout the industrial nations are teaching themselves Na’vi – an artificially created language for a movie.”  Read the full article here: Weinberg – Indian Country Media Network-politics of Avatar 2010

Note: This article was written before the release of James Cameron’s short documentary, Message from Pandora, which showed the Kayapo campaign against the building of dams in the Brazilian Amazon.

Bill Weinberg, Indian Country Today Media Network, 2/10/2010

 

 

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