2005, NR, 80 min. Directed by Heather Rae.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., March 31, 2006
John Trudell, the Native American rights activist and spoken-word artist and musician, is the subject of this reverential biographical portrait that feels more like a press package than a full-fledged biopic. Trudell first came into the spotlight as the spokesman for the Native Americans who occupied Alcatraz in 1969 in political protest. He was a highly visible participant in the growing American Indian rights movement during the Seventies until the death of his family in a house fire in 1979 (which occurred within hours after Trudell burned a flag in Washington, D.C. – events Trudell believes to not be coincidental) turned his means of expression toward poetry and, eventually, spoken word and music combinations. A charismatic personality and compelling political philosopher, Trudell has a host of admirers, and many of his high-profile fans eagerly supply their impressions for this movie. Robert Redford, Kris Kristofferson, Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne, and others all sing his praises, but by the time Redford suggests that a conversation with Trudell is akin to talking with the Dalai Lama, it's clear Rae's biopic is planning to err on the side of hagiography. The first half of the film supplies a Trudell-centric survey of the political battlegrounds at Alcatraz and Wounded Knee, and it's terrific to see all the old news footage compiled here. The second half concerns Trudell's metamorphosis into a spoken-word poet and environmental activist, whose involvement in the No Nukes movement stems from his totemic philosophical ideas about Mother Earth. To her credit, Rae gives free rein to Trudell's philosophy, and in sections tries to meld words and images in keeping with his artistic style. Yet, there's always the nagging feeling that there's a more probing and provocative study to be made of this man who was the subject of one of the FBI's longest personal dossiers – some 17,000 pages. The man whom the FBI described as "extremely eloquent, therefore extremely dangerous" here seems about as threatening as Mother Teresa.