[For this year’s Valentine’s series, I wanted to highlight and contextualize some of the movies I most love. Leading up to a weekend Guest Post from one of our most impressive scholarly FilmStudiers!]
On three of the many reasons I love Thunderheart (1992).
I’ve written about Michael Apted’s mystery thriller Thunderheart as part of two prior posts: one of my very first posts, on collective memories of the American Indian Movement (AIM); and a more recent one on cultural representations of Wounded Knee. More than 26 years after Apted’s film was released, I’d say that it still holds up (alongside Longmire and Tony Hillerman’s novels, both also mysteries interestingly enough) as one of the best mainstream pop culture representations of such Native American histories I’ve ever encountered. Partly that’s an indictment of mainstream pop culture, which certainly still needs more and more varied representations of Native American histories and communities (while of course we also need to engage more with works created by Native American artists). But partly it’s a reflection of just how well Apted and his collaborators weave those histories and themes throughout their film while maintaining its genre pleasures and appeal, aided by some incredibly talented Native American actors and one exceptionally talented non-actor (Chief Ted Thin Elk, in one of my favorite film performances of all time; slight SPOILERS in that clip).
Those historical and cultural threads would likely be enough all by themselves to make Thunderheart a film I love. But it’s got a lot else going on as well, and one central thread is pretty much perfectly constructed to hit this AmericanStudier’s sweet spot. I wrote my college senior thesis on historical fictions in which sons research the past and their fathers, learning more about their own identities in the process. Thunderheart’s central mysteries don’t involve Ray Levoi (Val Kilmer)’s father or family in any direct way, exactly; but at the same time, his Sioux ancestry and heritage on his paternal side, and more specifically his evolving perspective on and recovery of those elements of his identity, become inextricably interwoven with the plot developments, climax, and overall arc of the film. Without spoiling any of its particulars, I’ll just say that the seemingly simple line, “I knew my father, Maggie” becomes one of the most important and moving in the film, and to my mind prompts one of pop culture’s most striking moments of self-awareness, -reflection, and –analysis. And it does so by forcing its protagonist and its audience to consider the complexities, meanings, and legacies of a mixed-race, cross-cultural identity, which, again, kind of constructed in a lab for this AmericanStudier.
Finally (for this post—I could go on, I assure you!), there’s the compelling ways Thunderheart both uses yet complicates notions of genre. [More overt SPOILERS in this paragraph.] As I’ve said already, it’s a very successful mystery thriller, yet at the same one in which the respective roles of detective and criminal/villain are, to put it mildly, not at all what they seem to be. It’s also heavily indebted to the genre of the Western, but likewise complicates that genre’s traditions through a number of fascinating choices. To name two of the best: Apted casts Sam Shepard, one of American cinema and culture’s most iconic Western/cowboy types, in a role that seems to be a white hat but ends up being a very, very black one; and he ends his film’s climax (one more time, major SPOILERS follow, especially in the hyperlinked scene) with a moment that entirely upends one of the most prominent visual clichés of the Western genre, that of menacing Native Americans emerging over a hill to threaten our heroes. These choices and moments become all the more meaningful if we’re aware of genre traditions, yet at the same time push us to confront the prejudices inherent in those traditions and to imagine alternative images and stories. One more reason why I love love love Thunderheart.
Next movie tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Beloved movies you’d highlight?
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