March 9, 2010

Oscar night, 37 years ago

"You know Brando's single most crucial moment?" Perkus quizzed me.
"Uh, not On the Waterfront?"
"Not even close. Too compromised by McCarthyism."
I hated this game. "Apocalypse Now?"
"Well, that's an important one, with the whole Heart of Darkness subtext, but what I have in mind is when he sent Sacheen Littlefeather to accept the Oscar in his place. I mean, it's the most amazing conflation of the American Imaginary, just think about it! In one gesture Brando ties our rape of the Indians to this figure of our immigrant nightmare, this Sicilian peasant doing the American dream, capitalism I mean, more ruthlessly than the founding fathers could ever have dreaded. We're as defenseless against what Don Corleone exposes, the murderous underside of Manifest Destiny, as the Indians were against smallpox blankets. And in the vanishing space between the two, what? America itself, whatever that is. Brando, essentially, declining to appear. Because the party's over."
-- Jonathan Lethem, from Chronic City. Faber and Faber, 2010.
In the Lethem novel, Perkus Tooth is the paranoid scholar of popular culture's secret history, Pynchon-like right down to the name. But stoned or not -- chronic city -- he might be right about this part of his Marlon Brando obsession. It was a crucial moment. And it seems to me that the Sacheen Littlefeather moment -- pictured above; YouTube link here -- wasn't just Brando's most crucial, it also foreshadowed the Oscars 37 years in the future, in the year 2010. Or at least Avatar's (surprisingly meagre) Oscar haul.

In 1973, Brando was involved in a protest at Wounded Knee. Littlefeather was the president of the Native American Image Committee. She attends the Oscars in full Apache dress. Watch the clip and you see her looking pained, nervous. She waves away the statuette offered by a perma-tanned Roger Moore. She holds the speech from Brando that she is not given time to read. She says: "He very regretfully cannot accept this very generous award. And the reasons for this being the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry'' -- and this is where the booing starts, quickly met with counterbalancing applause, at these words film industry -- "and on television in movie re-runs and also with recent happenings at Wounded Knee.''

She says that she hopes she has not intruded. But she has done more than just intrude. This was reality disrupting the spectacle. Hollywood on Oscar night is used to harmless, gentle puncturing of its greatest egos and the ceremony's long-winded self-importance, but it rarely gets news from the outside like this -- it rarely gets called out for the harm done by decades of misrepresentation. From the Brando speech she did not get to read, that was printed in the New York Times:
Perhaps at this moment you are saying to yourself what the hell has all this got to do with the Academy Awards? Why is this woman standing up here, ruining our evening, invading our lives with things that don't concern us, and that we don't care about? Wasting our time and money and intruding in our homes.
I think the answer to those unspoken questions is that the motion picture community has been as responsible as any for degrading the Indian and making a mockery of his character, describing his as savage, hostile and evil. It's hard enough for children to grow up in this world. When Indian children watch television, and they watch films, and when they see their race depicted as they are in films, their minds become injured in ways we can never know.
Recently there have been a few faltering steps to correct this situation, but too faltering and too few, so I, as a member in this profession, do not feel that I can as a citizen of the United States accept an award here tonight. I think awards in this country at this time are inappropriate to be received or given until the condition of the American Indian is drastically altered. If we are not our brother's keeper, at least let us not be his executioner.
When Avatar opened last December, it coincided more or less exactly with the 40th anniversary of the publication of Dee Brown's book Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, which is commonly understood to be the first popular history of the American west from the Indian perspective. In other words, a detailed and unrelenting account of injustices, massacres and broken promises; it could be the most heartbreaking non-fiction book ever published. It's hard not to think that Brown's book, along with other necessary revisions like Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States and David Stannard's American Holocaust: The Conquest of the New World -- published in 1992 as a response to the Columbus anniversary, it's the book that put the notion of "genocide'' squarely into this argument -- were as central to Cameron's ecological/sci-fi/indigeneity parable-in-3D as such widely touted examples as James Lovelock's Gaia theory or Ursula Le Guin's The Word for World is Forest (itself Vietnam inspired). You can flick through Stannard's astonishing book and suspect that you're actually reading an Avatar treatment -- a point that occurred to Guardian columnist George Monbiot. Stannard even offers outlines for the inevitable sequels, especially helpful for those doubters who thought that Cameron's action movie ending was far too triumphant to work as an analogy of such grim history.
From the very beginnings -- from at least that day in 1493 when a "very beautiful Carib woman" fought off the violent advances of Michele de Cuneo, before being thrashed with a rope and then raped by him -- the people of the Americas resisted. None did so more successfully than the Maya, who combined retreat into the deep jungle cover of the Yucatan lowlands -- where, as one historian puts it, the pursuing conquistadors "soon found themselves adrift in a green expanse of forest without food to eat, souls to convert or labour to exploit" -- with relentless military counterattacks that finally led to temporary expulsion of the Spanish in 1638. And neither did any people resist with more symbolism than the Maya, who made a practice of destroying not only Spanish soldiers but whatever foreign things the Spanish had brought with them -- horses, cattle, cats, dogs, trees and plants. In the end, however, the Maya too lost 95 of every 100 of their people -- a price for their resistance that most outsiders, if they know of it, can hardly hope to comprehend.
By the time the 16th century ended perhaps 200,000 Spaniards had moved their lives to the Indies, to Mexico, to Central America, and points further to the south. In contrast, by that time, somewhere between 60 million and 80 million natives from those lands were dead. Even then, the carnage was not over.