Contributed by Jonathan Stevenson / Trump’s reactionary public policy, which has institutionalized contempt for the advances in social justice forged in the United States over the past 150 years, has produced pervasive discontent. Anger about his racism, misogyny, and homophobia is manifesting itself through art in different ways. In tone, resistance ranges from the simmering observations of Kerry James Marshall’s paintings, shown last year at the Met Breuer, to the incendiary sorties of David Wojnarowicz’s work, recently on display at the Whitney. Historically and logically, of course, art can function as a cultural pressure-release valve for those who lack current political power. Susanna White’s Woman Walks Ahead, a 2018 film undeservedly ignored in theaters, dramatizes with deliberative clarity and considerable wit the way in which a determined artist, though without the wherewithal to effect immediate change, can vouchsafe a cause not just in the moment but for future generations.
Handsomely shot in New Mexico and based on a true story that is liberally embellished, the movie concerns the 1889–90 quest of activist painter Catherine Weldon (Jessica Chastain, humbly calibrated), here a New York widow (in reality, a divorcee) of some means, to paint Sitting Bull (a revelatory Michael Greyeyes), the Hunkpapa Lakota Sioux chief and Little Big Horn leader then living under the U.S. Army’s patronizing house arrest at the Standing Rock Reservation in Dakota Territory, to which she travels alone by train. Once just an armchair campaigner for Indians’ rights (what might now be called a limousine liberal) via the National Indian Defense Association, but certainly a feminist at heart, Weldon shrugs off verbal and physical abuses of disdainful soldiers and frontiersmen – “I hope they fuck you, cut the baby out, like they did to the Robinson girls,” one says of the Lakota Sioux, after spitting in her face – and the depredations of a Lakota thief to gain an audience with Sitting Bull. When she first encounters him, he is wearing a white man’s clothes and despondently tending to his potato crop next to the log cabin the U.S. government has provided with an eye to taming him. Skeptical of the depth of her motivation, he tests it by insisting on a $1,000 fee for sitting for the portrait. She agrees.
Greyeyes’ performance is deeply nuanced and developed with impeccable economy and pacing (even if the movie as a whole is rather ponderous). Over time – Weldon stayed for more than a year, raising evidently unfounded suspicions about the nature of the relationship – Sitting Bull’s sullen, mercenary mien gives way to a more generous and expansive countenance. He doesn’t lose his splendid sense of irony: he calls her “Woman Walks Ahead” on account of her breach of protocol, and when Weldon asks him why he won’t wear his full tribal regalia for the portrait, he murmurs eloquently, “Same reason you don’t wear your wedding dress.” Yet Weldon – with a little help from the clear-eyed but pragmatic Colonel Silas Grove (Sam Rockwell, gauging perfectly) and an Indian sheriff (an intense Chaske Spencer) – peels away one more layer of morbid resignation so as to release his dignity and valor from imposed rustication. She eventually persuades him to don his full dress for a sitting, and, as the movie has it, he couldn’t help but admire the finished portrait. He again puts on a war bonnet and a bone vest for the reservation vote on the Dawes Act – which effectuated the breakup of Indian tribes and their territories by authorizing the assignment of parcels of land to individual Indians – rallying the majority of Lakota initially inclined to yield to Congress’ machinations to reject the law.
Col. Grove observes, correctly, that they have merely given the army a pretext for further repression. But one of Weldon’s two surviving portraits (she painted four in all) still hangs on permanent display at the State Historical Society in Bismarck, North Dakota, the other at the Historical Arkansas Museum in Little Rock, solemnly and magisterially calling out the grandiose immorality of Manifest Destiny and fraudulence of American Exceptionalism. Little these days comes without baggage. But because Native Americans were involved in both Weldon’s enterprise and the inconveniently named White’s movie, perhaps neither can be even tenuously accused of cultural appropriation. From an artistic and cultural standpoint, surely the overarching significance of Sitting Bull and Weldon’s moment in history and the movie that enshrines it is the way creative acts by ostensibly disempowered parties can help ensure that a just grievance stays alive in perpetuity.
Woman Walks Ahead, 2018, directed by Susanna White, distributed by A24.
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