Beyond black and white

Ron Howard’s latest film can’t escape his simplistic worldview.

by Tom Horgen

Savage American Indians are back on the big screen.

And with them, do-gooder Ron Howard finally gets his hands dirty.

The director of “A Beautiful Mind,” “Apollo 13,” “Cocoon” and other all-white schmaltz operas, couldn’t have chosen a more deep-seated racial dilemma to dip his finger into. His new film, “The Missing,” is a Western that gets lost in its own depictions of race relations between whites and American Indians on the U.S. frontier.

The film stars Cate Blanchett as a single mother whose teenage daughter is kidnapped by a band of American Indians (and a couple white dudes to keep the ideology covert) who plan to sell her on the Mexican border. Blanchett’s only hope to save her daughter is her estranged father, played by Tommy Lee Jones, who miraculously shows up just as the situation comes to a head. As luck would have it, Jones’ character, disillusioned with his whiteness, has been passing as an American Indian for some time. Unsurprisingly, he picks up the trail of the American Indian kidnappers immediately.

That said, much of Howard’s folly comes in his portrayal of the various American Indians in the movie. They’re stock characters who move the father/daughter story along. There’s the mystical shaman who leads the almost speechless group of American Indians, the caring kidnapper American Indian and the “helper” American Indians who aid Jones and Blanchett on their quest.

With barely any fully realized American Indian characters in the cinema today (save in films like “Skins” and “Smoke Signals,” and even there, it’s mostly Gary Farmer) shouldn’t we question the motives of a director who chooses to bring back these damaging stereotypes?

Of course, Howard does his best to somewhat offset the regressive stereotypes he’s using. We learn that the band of American Indians were formally employed by the U.S. military but went rogue when they were wronged by the government (for the thousandth time). Coincidentally, this motivation for the group’s foul behavior gets passed over as the wickedness of their leader takes center stage throughout the film.

Furthermore, Howard attempts to complicate the distorted images he’s giving us by playing with the idea of white appropriation of American Indian culture. Jones’ character and Blanchett’s youngest daughter are fascinated with the American Indian lifestyle. Jones has been passing as an Apache Indian for much of his life, and when he meets his youngest granddaughter for the first time, she is excited at the thought of being part American Indian. Even though Jones informs her that she is not, she paints warrior streaks across her cheeks in a silly attempt to hold on to her initial jubilation.

These small instances of appreciation, however misguided, do little to overshadow the archaic representation running rampant throughout the rest of the film.

Howard should be mildly applauded for taking a chance with “The Missing” – dabbling in a highly charged area he’s never touched before – but it was the lack of sophistication that’s always hindered his movies that worked against him again.