Cowboys and Indians Film Review

Cowboys and Indians Film Review
"You charge me to be cautious riding out lest the Indians get me. Those about here are the most harmless people you ever saw. It really is my opinion that the whole race would be harmless and peaceable if they were not put upon by the whites." Ulysses S. Grant, letter to his wife Julia, 1853

Grant was not seduced by the mythos of the West in which the courageous white settler tames the savage native. Damage continues to be wrought by that narrative, as is illustrated in "Cowboys and Indians: The J.J. Harper Story". Although the events dramatized take place in 1988, their circumstances would be depressingly familiar to Grant. Harper, an Indigenous Canadian, was gunned down by a police officer as he walked home late one winter evening. An inquest ruled the shooting was justified although Harper was unarmed and committed no crime.

"Cowboys and Indians" is told from the viewpoint of Harper's brother, Harry Wood (Eric Schweig). The film opens with grainy footage of the brothers as children, playing cowboys and Indians in the snow. The implicit critique of the Western myth continues as the film jumps forward to the present. An enormous cowboy, in the form of a neon sign, leers down at the brothers as they leave a Winnipeg tavern. J.J. (Adam Beach) declines a taxi ride with his brother, opting to clear his head by walking home in the crisp March air.

The moment of Harper's death is revealed in flashbacks as the film progresses. "Cowboys and Indians" is structured along two parallel tracks; the police as they spin facts to their advantage and Harper's family and friends as they grieve and demand justice. The writing is uneven, with the segments featuring the native characters superior. A look at the screenplay credits reveals that in addition to Andrew Rai Berzins , four other writers (including director Norma Bailey) are also credited.

The Indigenous actors (Beach, Schweig, and Gordon Tootoosis who plays the father) all have experience in US feature films, which may explain why their scenes play more naturally. Norma Bailey, who won an award at the American Indian Film Festival for her direction, is also adept at creating tension in the courtroom scenes. She saves a crucial statistic for the epilogue, however. In 2003, when the film screened on Canadian television, Indigenous people comprised 70% of the inmates in Manitoba's jails while they are only 15% of the population.

In the same way that George Floyd's death sparked protests in the US, Harper's death led to calls for reform in Canada. A parliamentary inquiry, depicted in the film, found that the system had failed Canada's native peoples. The police officers involved in Harper's death paid a price, as well. Robert Cross, the constable who shot Harper, was demoted and eventually died an alcoholic. His supervisor committed suicide. While the anniversary of J.J. Harper's death is designated Aboriginal Justice Awareness Day in Manitoba, systemic change has yet to materialize.

"Cowboys and Indians" is currently streaming on Amazon. I watched the film at my own expense. Review posted on 7/31/2020.

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