Dream on, Dreamers
There's an unusual special coming up on ABC this holiday weekend. Unusual not only because it departs from the typical holiday fare, but because it marries two rarely seen subjects -- contemporary Native Americans and Native American mythology. The special is Dreamkeeper, a two-part miniseries and another in a line of visually arresting films from producer Robert Halmi Sr. (Arabian Nights, Merlin, Dinotopia).
Of course, Native Americans are not new to TV. In early TV Westerns they were portrayed as soulless savages or mute, feral creatures not to be trusted. In the Seventies, the image softened to the noble savage. But then Westerns went out of fashion and evaporated from network lineups, and Native Americans disappeared as well.
The work of Native American writers like Tony Hillerman and Sherman Alexie has done much to bring contemporary Native Americans to the fore. Hillerman's Skinwalkers mystery has been mildly successful on PBS, while Alexie's screenwriting success in indie films (Smoke Signals) not only brought the contemporary Native American condition to a wider audience, but raised Alexie's profile as a writer of perplexing, painful, yet sometimes wry short stories. Unlike these two works and previous Halmi projects, Dreamkeeper is definitely family-friendly fare, but with a sharper edge than most.
The story follows Shane Chasing Horse (Eddie Spears), a teenager living on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, and his grandfather, Old Pete Chasing Horse (August Schellenberg). Though they live in the same reservation, their views of the world couldn't be further apart.
For Old Pete, his time is coming to an end. Because of this, he asks his grandson to drive him to the All Nations Powwow in New Mexico. Shane has no interest in "playing Driving Miss Daisy" with his grandfather, but since he's managed to anger some reservation thugs, he takes the wheel of their tired pickup truck, loads up Old Pete (and his horse), and bolts before the thugs catch on. What ensues is a sort of road movie where Old Pete shares the tales he has been burning to pass on, while Shane, in spite of his adolescent impatience with the old man, begins to consider what it means to be a modern man with roots in an ancient past.
What makes Dreamkeeper refreshing is that there is no well-meaning white guy from whom the narrative of the Other emanates (Dances With Wolves, Glory, Cry Freedom). Add to this the predominance of Native American actors playing Native Americans, and there's something of a paradigm shift appearing in this small TV movie.
An annoyance of the film is also one of its strengths. In an effort to share as many legends as possible, Old Pete tells tales from a wide swath of North American nations. This is a bit of a stretch, but their respectful and engrossing presentation makes the stretch forgivable.
Dreamkeeper airs Dec. 28 & 29 at 8pm on ABC.
After watching Dreamkeeper, I remembered my promise to discuss diversity on the small screen in 2004. Most TV watchers would agree there have been some small but visible changes in the TV landscape. Credit in part goes to several networks (Fox, CBS, Disney -- which owns ABC) that have launched writing fellowships for ethnic minority writers, giving them a chance to cut their chops in script and series development. This is certainly valuable, but larger strides will occur when minorities are in key leadership roles as producers and network executives.
As I Was Saying --
Which brings me to Jeff Valdez, founder and co-chairman of Sí TV. The new cable venture, set to launch in February 2004, will be the first Latino network aimed at an English-speaking audience. According to a Television Week profile of Valdez (Dec. 11), it sounds like Valdez has figured out what the rest of the industry hasn't: Latinos don't need to be approached as an anthropological subject but as viewers -- many who speak little or no Spanish -- who want to see a good story as much as the next viewer and appreciate seeing our experiences reflected once in a damn while.
"I always tell people they're trying way too hard," Valdez says in TW. "Just pick a script, pick a character, and get a Hispanic actor. Phoebe in Friends could have been Hispanic. It's that simple."
If Valdez can match his breezy confidence with solid, quality programming, I suspect Sí TV will be one of the most significant launches on the small screen next year, providing an example for the other networks to follow.
As always, stay tuned.
Andy Campbell, Fri., May 17, 2013
Monica Riese, Fri., May 17, 2013
Kimberley Jones, Fri., May 17, 2013
Leah Churner, Fri., May 17, 2013
Richard Whittaker, Fri., May 17, 2013
Belinda Acosta, Fri., July 8, 2011
Belinda Acosta, Fri., July 1, 2011
Belinda Acosta, Fri., June 24, 2011
Belinda Acosta, Fri., June 17, 2011
Belinda Acosta, Fri., June 10, 2011
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