The very first appearance of Native Americans in the movies can be credited to Thomas Edison, who used real-life footage of Laguna Pueblo Indians for his publicly exhibited kinetoscopes; in other words, they’ve been a presence in moving pictures from the very beginning. To say that their screen personae have changed frequently since then would be an understatement, though the most contentious cinematic version of the “Indian”—monosyllabic, stone-faced, primitive and perversely vicious—has had a stranglehold on the popular imagination for decades. Cree documentarian Neil Diamond—not the pop singer—was curious as to how films have shaped the racial identity of our continent’s indigenous people, so he hit the road, traveling from northeastern Canada to Hollywood. Occasionally, his rambling journal of self-discovery detours into incisive testimonies from Native American actors, moviemakers, critics and activists, complemented by clips ranging from classic Western scenes to Sacheen Littlefeather’s refusal of Marlon Brando’s Godfather Oscar.
Had Diamond stuck to the straightforward doc route, Reel Injun could have been the definitive statement on the subject; indeed, both the talking-head interviews and montages trace distortions and puncture myths with professional rigor. (Iron Eyes Cody? He was actually Sicilian.) The first-person sections, however, couldn’t be more clumsy or grating, and every time Diamond’s tone-deaf narration starts repeating the obvious, you can feel an eye-opening history lesson turning into a quirky, orbs-glazing travelogue.—David Fear