Breaking Chains: The Indigenous Renaissance in Hollywood’s Narrative Evolution

By: Lauren Breen 

Edited by: Natalie Cowan

*Disclaimer* As a non-Indigenous writer, I acknowledge the responsibility that comes with discussing Indigenous topics. Thus, I aim to uplift and not overtake the voices of Indigenous creators who are reshaping narratives and challenging historical misrepresentations in the entertainment industry. 

In the heart of Hollywood and the entertainment industry–where stories are woven into the fabric of the silver screen–a profound transformation is underway. The cinematic landscape, once infested by misrepresentation and stereotyping, is experiencing a revolutionary shift led by the very voices it has long overlooked. That is, Indigenous creators are beginning to take the reins, crafting narratives that defy stereotypes and breathe life into authentic perspectives. This article aims to explore the Indigenous revolution taking place in Hollywood, where the power to shape narratives is no longer held solely by the Western settler establishment, but by resilient storytellers who are rewriting the scripts of representation. 

Looking back, Hollywood has a troubled history of misrepresenting Indigenous peoples, perpetuating stereotypes that do profound harm. Ever since the emergence of the Western film genre, two binary depictions of Indigenous peoples as the “noble Indian” and the “bloodthirsty savage” emerged and were upheld for most of the 20th century. Moreover, Indigenous characters have often been reduced to one-dimensional caricatures, such as Tiger Lily and her tribe from J.M Barrie’s Peter Pan, reinforcing harmful misconceptions about their diverse cultures. These misconceptions, coupled with the critical underrepresentation of Indigenous peoples, standing at 0.3%-0.5% in film, mean that the impact of these portrayals extends beyond the silver screen; they have seeped into societal perceptions and perpetuated stereotypes that undermine the rich complexity of Indigenous peoples. 

The Indigenous revolution in Hollywood began only a few years ago with writers, directors, and producers of Indigenous descent reclaiming their stories, infusing authenticity and cultural depth into their work. This shift is more than a mere correction–it’s a reclamation of identity and a challenge to the industry’s traditional power structures. Key figures, such as Taika Waititi, an Oscar-winning filmmaker of Maori descent, have played pivotal roles in bringing authentic Indigenous stories to the forefront. With films like Hunt for the Wilderpeople and Thor: Ragnarok, Waititi defies stereotypes, infusing his work with humor, complexity, and a genuine celebration of Indigenous culture. 

Besides Waititi, the recent success of actor Lily Gladstone is worth noting. With her sweeping success at the 2024 Golden Globes for her performance in Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon, Lily Gladstone became the first Indigenous woman to win the accolade for the  best actress in a drama film. During her acceptance speech, she paid homage to her Blackfoot and Nimiipuu heritage by speaking in her language and dedicating her award to today’s Indigenous youth: “This is for every little rez kid, every little urban kid, every little Native kid who has a dream, who is seeing themselves represented and our stories told by ourselves, in our own words, with tremendous allies and tremendous trust with and from each other.” 

Although there are some mixed opinions about Killers of the Flower Moon, specifically around the settler narratives it portrays, the success of Indigenous-led projects in Hollywood is a testament to the industry’s changing landscape. For example, the 2022 sci-fi film Prey, directed by Dan Trachtenberg, was co-produced and co-written by Jhane Myers, a Blackfoot and Comanche woman. Including Myers, the cast and crew were largely Indigenous, including lead actor Amber Midthunder, and supporting actors Dakota Beavers and Harlan Blayne Kytwayhat. According to Myers, the film set the bar for meaningful representation and authenticity in Hollywood, working against the paradigm that has been set for decades. 

Apart from film, TV series like Reservation Dogs, co-created by Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi, showcase Indigenous humor, resilience, and friendship. By centering on Indigenous youth, the series challenges preconceived notions and stereotypes of suffering and provides a fresh perspective that resonates with audiences. Not to mention the emergence of new Indigenous characters and leads within the Marvel universe, such as animated Mohawk superhero Kahhori, revealed in the Disney+ series What If? and Menominee actress Alaqua Cox as Maya Lopez in Echo, also streaming on the same platform. 

While the Indigenous Renaissance in Hollywood is gaining momentum, the industry itself must confront its historical shortcomings. Hollywood is responsible for rectifying past misrepresentations and acknowledging the harm caused by perpetuating stereotypes. Initiatives promoting diversity and inclusion are steps in the right direction, but true progress requires ongoing commitment, collaboration, and a willingness to amplify Indigenous voices. Brittany LeBorgne, a Kahnawake actor and writer, suggests that our education systems can be used as a tool to highlight the value of representation and that filmmakers should cast Indigenous characters without writing them in a way that solely focuses on their Indigenous identities. Holistically, collaborations between Indigenous creators and mainstream Hollywood studios are vital. By providing resources, platforms, and opportunities, the industry can foster an environment where authentic Indigenous storytelling thrives, free from the constraints of historical misrepresentation. 

Overall, as we witness the Indigenous renaissance in Hollywood, it becomes clear that the power to shape narratives is no longer solely held by the establishment. Indigenous storytellers are breaking chains, rewriting scripts, and offering audiences a chance to experience the depth, richness, and authenticity of their cultures. To truly celebrate this transformative moment, audiences and industry insiders alike must actively support and amplify Indigenous voices, ensuring that Hollywood continues to evolve towards a more inclusive and representative future. The revolution is here, and it’s time to embrace the change. 

Photo Citation: 

File: Hollywood sign 2008.jpg. (2020, November 7). Wikimedia Commons. Retrieved 01:40, January 18, 2024 from https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Hollywood_sign_2008.jpg&oldid=510984066.

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