Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Beyond the Black Maria: "White Fawn's Devotion"

"White Fawn's Devotion", 1910 (public domain)
16. "White Fawn's Devotion" (1910) Watch
Though depictions of racial minorities in American cinema, and indeed contributions to the art by members of those groups, have increased in number and authenticity with each passing decade, Native Americans remain to this day criminally underrepresented, both as characters and artists behind the scenes. And on the rare occasions when Native Americans are cast in films, they are usually in supporting roles which all too often perpetuate one-dimensional stereotypes. Even a self-proclaimed liberal cinephile like me is hard pressed to summon up a substantial list of prominent Native American filmmakers from this or any era of cinema. It is against this backdrop that I marvel at the existence of "White Fawn's Devotion", a short film starring Red Indians and directed by James Young Deer of the Winnebago tribe; this title is the earliest known example of the work of any Native American director. The director's wife hauntingly portrays White Fawn, who's settler husband has just been informed that he must leave the homestead to collect a far off inheritance. Overwhelmed with the thought of living without her spouse for even a moment, White Fawn attempts suicide, the optics of which leads the nearby tribe to accuse her husband of murder. 
Despite some over-exaggerated acting from some of the cast which I suppose was typical of the era, along with a few unnecessary and obvious inter-titles, the film is a compelling tale full of irony, melodrama, and veiled social commentary, all elements which post-WWII Italian filmmakers would  later embrace to create the genre of neorealism. "White Fawn's Devotion" is a rare and singular piece of filmmaking, not only for its improbably successful journey through time, but also for its much too uncommon portrayal of Native Americans in a medium which is still reluctant to give this country's first people a proper voice. 

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