Wes Studi, dressed in a beautifully beaded suit and bow tie, was presented an Honorary Oscar at the 2019 Governor Awards just a few weeks ago. After being handed his award from his Hostiles co-star, Christian Bale, the accomplished actor held out the iconic gold statue towards the crowd before doing some bicep curls.
The Cherokee actor took about thirteen minutes to thank everyone who played a part in his career: from the grips and set designers to the directors, Michael Mann and Walter Hill, and of course, his family and friends who were there that night. Studi has participated in feature films, short films, television specials, documentaries, award-winning blockbusters, and small-budget projects. “Hey, an actor’s gotta keep working,” Studi mentions in his speech.
His talent can be seen in every role he takes on but is particularly evident in his nuanced performances as various Native American characters. What makes Wes Studi’s career so fun to talk about is he is a Cherokee man portraying a multi-dimensional Native character with layers. He has a skill of bringing depth to these particular period dramas that are unmistakably linked to the parallels in his own Native American experience, like in his role as Mangua in The Last of the Mohicans.
The early days of cinema were not kind to the portrayal of Native experience. John Ford’s Stagecoach in 1939 is still regarded as subversive for the art form during this time and many critics and academics rank it highly on ‘best of’ lists. The issue with the film is the appearance of the ravaging Indians who are shot at like they are inhuman. Stagecoach was just the beginning of the popular American Western genre which is known for its lazy depiction of people of color. Natives were never seen as human, just a stock character that was either brutal monsters, over-sexualized eye candy, or a pest that interfered with Manifest Destiny.
Most tribal members that were involved with the making of western films were used as background props and paid very little while the hottest Hollywood star at the time would play the lead in redface. There were even moments where actors were painted red or be made to look more stereo-typically Indigenous. Women who ‘played Indian’ would be dressed in almost nothing, adding to the dangerous stereotypes that still hurt Native communities. Burt Lancaster did this more than once, Audrey Hepburn is also a culprit, and the controversy of Johnny Depp as Tanto in 2013 brought back this age-old discussion. These inaccurate portrayals added to the racist beliefs that all Native people had died out and the ones that survived were lesser than their white counterparts.
The narrative around Native existence began to change in the 1970s. The Bureau of Indian Affairs was taken over in 1972 — with Wes Studi as one of the protestors, 1973 marked two remarkable events with the Wounded Knee demonstration and Sacheen Littlefeather’s moment at the Academy Awards, and 1975 introduced the world to Will Sampson (Muskogee Creek) who will always be remembered by film fans as Chief in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. This turning point in representation was necessary in order for change to occur but this is still an active conversation that is being had to this day.
A group of Indigenous filmmakers are rising up. Since the Standing Rock protests that began in 2016, a new generation of Native radicals has been making their debut. The ones who came before us are the reason we are able to stand behind the camera, controlling every detail on set. We believe in supporting the voice of each other as we shoot film, not guns. The future of filmmaking is Indigenous.
“I’d simply like to say, it’s about time!” Studi said while accepting his honorary Academy Award and he’s right. It’s about time that Native Americans get recognized for our achievements, it’s about time that our voices are being respected, and it’s about time that the film industry allows us to control our own representation. Wado, Wes Studi. Your career to this point is a landmark for Native American representation and it is inspiring. I look forward to what you do next.