In 1889, 31 years before women were granted the right to vote in the United States, a wealthy widow named Caroline "Catherine" Weldon boarded a train from Brooklyn to North Dakota. As a member of the National Indian Defense Association, Weldon was a fierce opponent of the Dawes Act, which sought to divide and conquer Native American tribes by literally parcelling out their land. She also really wanted to paint a portrait of Sitting Bull.
Woman Walks Ahead, starring Jessica Chastain, Michael Greyeyes and Sam Rockwell, which hits theaters June 29, is based on that true story. Directed by Susanna White (Generation Kill, Parade's End), the film flips the traditional western narrative. Rather than focusing on the brave macho cowboys who conquered the frontier, White turns her lens on those that story usually ignores: women and Native Americans.
Pop culture has made strides in reclaiming the problematic genre in recent years: Godless, Westworld, and Good Time Girls are all examples of westerns that shift the perspective from a white man-centric tale to include women. Woman Walks Ahead takes this one step forward by choosing to elevate Native American voices on par with the white lead.
Still, it's tricky balancing act to tell a story about a white woman coming to the aid of Native Americans without falling into a white saviour narrative, and Woman Walks Ahead very nearly succumbs to it. What saves the film is White's choice to centre to anchor the action in the personal relationship that develops between Weldon (Chastain) and Sitting Bull (Greyeyes), rather than the political strife swirling around them. Ultimately, this is as much a character study about two marginalised people (one far more than the other) as it is an epic western.
The story of how this film got made is almost as fascinating as the one it depicts. The script was written nearly 15 years ago by Steven Knight, and lay dormant until White signed on in 2015. Even then, studios weren't exactly thrilled at the idea of female and Native American lead. Jessica Chastain's star power helped nudge things along, but it took the arrival of then 24-year-old Erika Olde, who produced the film, to really get the ball rolling.
Ahead, White talks to Refinery29 about the challenges inherent in telling this story, what makes a female western, and why she's happy to be compared to Westworld.
Refinery29: The Western is such a quintessential symbol of American masculinity. What made you decide to try to give a female perspective?
Susanna White: "I grew up in South London, in a little house penned in by grey skies, and to see those John Ford films of Monument Valley was amazing to me. That sense of space, those incredible landscapes. All of the stylisation of a Sergio Leone film — it was one of the things that drew me into cinema. And yet it was a man’s world, a world of extreme violence, and of violence without consequences. Women were really marginalised. There was a level of disconnect — I didn’t feel like a belonged to the world of westerns. So [this movie] was the best of everything for me, because it was everything I loved about the genre, in terms of the scale, the sense of landscape, the importance of the land — but it was a western told through a female gaze, where two people normally without a voice — not only Catherine Weldon, but Sitting Bull and the Native Americans — get to have a voice. Traditionally in westerns, the indigenous people are just the bad guys. They’re the Apaches attacking the stagecoach. This felt so much more interesting to me, so layered, so sophisticated, and a beautiful story I wanted to tell. It’s a piece of history that was really reduced to a footnote — the writer found it literally as a footnote in the biography of Sitting Bull. And I was at a screening for the Lakota people last week, and someone came up to me and said: 'Thank you for showing this piece of our history which our children don’t learn about in school. Now our children are going to learn that story.'”
Did you face any challenges in telling a woman’s story without sacrificing the narrative around people of colour?
"Absolutely. In an earlier draft of the script, it was more about a clash between two old warriors, Sitting Bull and General Cooke, and I wanted to make a story of connection between two people, who together can be more than the sum of their parts. So, we made it the story of Catherine Weldon, an ingenue coming from Brooklyn and learning about the culture of the Lakota people, and giving Sitting Bull his true value. My background is in documentary, so the first thing I did when I got involved in the project was to go out to the reservation to learn more about the community, and what everybody said was what a great spiritual leader Sitting Bull was.
Was there every any fear of falling into a “white saviour” narrative?
"I knew we were treading a delicate line, and that it was very, very important that I educate myself, I was very aware of being an outsider telling this story, so I hired as many people from the community as I could. Ben Blackbear who was there to teach our actors to speak Lakota, because I wanted the sense of of us being alien in their land. Maybe a third of the film is spoken in Lakota, which is actually a dead language that people are working to keep alive. [It was crucial] that we were accurate in those things, whether it was in the language, the casting, or the costume design. Traditionally in westerns, we see Native Americans wearing buckskins, and in fact at that time they’d been banned from wearing their traditional dress. It was illegal to speak your own language, wear traditional dress, practice ceremonies. There was a 15-foot wall that was built at Fort Yates to stop white people from mixing with indigenous people. That culture was really disregarded and depressed. And so, I felt a great weight and responsibility to depict that culture fairly and also in honouring it, and showing how beautiful the art was, the level of sophistication in the craft of the clothing. There was lots of levels at which I tried to get it right.
"We engaged with the community a lot. My assistant is from Pine Ridge, so every day on the way to work, we’d talk about the scenes we were about to do and he’d feed into that. So, for example, at the political rally, when the women [ululate], that was something he said to me that morning. The last thing we wanted to do was a white saviour movie. It’s really a story about about people without a voice coming together — Catherine Weldon traveling to the Dakotas at a time before she had the vote. She was an extraordinarily brave woman to do what she did, and she found friendship in another community that was overlooked.”
I don’t know if you’ve been watching Westworld, but this season also featured an episode in which the characters speak almost entirely in Lakota.
"There’s a lot in the air, isn’t there? I’m so happy to see that, and to see people given the respect they’re owed. Again, I think on Westworld they worked with the Lakota Language Conservancy, as we did, to teach spoken Lakota. Everyone on our movie, from Sam Rockwell to Michael Greyeyes, who’s a Cree Indian, had to learn Lakota. And there are efforts now on the reservation to keep the language alive: preschools where the kids learn Lakota, apps. I’m hoping that all these culture things, whether it’s Westworld or whether it’s us, will feed back into the community. I was down in [the community] last week and they surprised me with a ceremony at the end of the screening — drummers arrived and they gave me a Native name, Woman Who Makes Things Happen. I was so honoured."
There’s a scene in which Catherine gets physically assaulted that’s really jarring. How did you make sure it had that kind of impact with the audience, especially in a genre that is so built on gratuitous violence?
"It’s a western told through a female gaze, where people who are usually silent in westerns are heard, and in a genre that’s known for its unthinking violence, there are only three instances of violence in the film, and they all land with an audible gasp in the audience. When did you ever go to western where people gasped? It’s kind of taken for granted that people die without consequences. Hopefully it will make people think.
"There’s no violence in the film to that point aside from a man who spits at [Catherine] when she gets off the train. We kept up a fairly harmonious world until that point, where things appear to be going well, and I wanted that moment to come out of nowhere. We see her in the store, and we see a woman who’s a bit suspicious of her, and she’s walking down the street, and everything’s fine, and suddenly whoosh that blow comes out of nowhere. It arrives as a surprise. I wanted it to shock people. And then you see the consequence of that violence. You see the bruising on her face, you feel the fallout. And similarly, at the end of the movie with what happens to Sitting Bull, we show how that affects people around him. I made Generation Kill, which was about the American invasion of Iraq, and there was a lot of violence in that. But what really interests me isn’t the act of violence itself but the consequences of it."
And traditionally, violence — and especially violence towards women — in westerns is perpetrated by Native Americans. But here, Catherine’s attackers are white men.
"Exactly, the townspeople. When Sitting Bull asks ‘Who did this?’ she says ‘The whole town.’ The violence is from the white community and the Native community are her allies."
You obviously couldn’t have predicted that the film would be released in a post Time’s Up environment, but how do you think the film fits into that?
This moment’s been a long time coming. I graduated from the UCLA film school in the mid-80s and it was only 10 years ago I got my own movie to direct. It took me a very long time to break through, which is the story of a lot of women out there. Statistics show that 50% of graduates leaving film school are women, and yet 3% of high budget films are directed by women. Times are changing, thank goodness we’re now in a world where people want to hear female voices, where you can have a female lead, and have a strong indigenous lead in the movie as well. And hopefully culturally we’re much richer for it. We’ve been limited to stories by very small narrow sections of society, and how great that we’re reflecting the world we live in in a more representative way. I hope this is just the beginning, that this is the tip of the iceberg, and that more voices will be heard. That will more fairly represent the world as a whole, and hopefully criticism will also represent the world as a whole. I think we really are starting to see those things."
What do you hope women take away from the film?
"There’s a piece of advice that Sitting Bull gives to Catherine, where he tells her to live more. And she says ‘Yes, live more. That’s what I want to do.’ And I think even now, there are a lot of women who don’t have confidence to go out and be themselves, and take their rightful place in the world. This movie is very relevant now in a lot of ways politically, whether it’s in terms of immigration, or the rights of Native people to hold on to their sacred land, but also there’s a bigger story about women having the confidence to take up space, lean in and occupy the world. All those messages are present in the film. And as I said before, to be given this Native name of Woman Who Gets Things Done, that’s a huge honour for me. That the Lakota people welcomed me into their community last week. There have been a lot of other women in the world who have gotten things done, and I hope we’re at a place now where films can tell their stories."