Roles for American Indian actors are scarce, to say the least.
And while Hollywood and the #oscarssowhite movement may be discussing the lack of diversity in mainstream movies, it’s sort of unsaid that they are mostly talking about African-American representation.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Diversity is diversity, and there should certainly be far more of it, especially with today’s racially divisive mood. But still, American Indians are all but invisible in mainstream pop culture.
So when we see one of ours (I am Comanche, Pawnee and Shawnee) break through to the mainstream, we feel justified, proud. Sure, we had nothing to do with it, but we at least feel validated, represented for a change.
That’s why it’s absolutely invigorating to see Adam Beach among the cast of “Suicide Squad.” The film is based on the DC comic book and so far is unfortunately not getting the best early reviews. But that doesn’t matter. It’s still set to make a killing this weekend at the box office, expected to rake in about $150 million in its opening weekend. That puts the high in high profile.
Beach is already one of the more prominent First Nations actors working today (he’s from Canada and is an Anishinaabe member of the Saulteaux tribe of the Dog Creek Lake Reserve in Manitoba, so calling him American Indian as The Eagle’s Associated Press style dictates would be inaccurate). He has a lengthy acting resume, including starring in the 1998 Sundance Film Festival breakout “Smoke Signals.”
He has also broken through to the mainstream before, starring in such films as 2002’s “Windtalkers” with Nicolas Cage and 2006’s “Flags of Our Fathers,” directed by Clint Eastwood. He also starred as a Mohawk detective on the popular “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” TV series.
While it was great to see him land such high-profile roles, he was still playing “Native” characters. Seeing actors in roles that aren’t specifically written as such is unusual. In other words, American Indians are almost never used for “blind casting.”
That is why I am ecstatic to see Beach playing Slipknot in “Suicide Squad” (and I am a comic book movie geek, anyway). Not to be confused with the hard rock band of the same name, Slipknot is one of the lesser known DC characters. But he is one of the supervillains – along with Deadshot (Will Smith), Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) and Boomerang (Jai Courtney), among others – recruited by Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) to join her team of misfit operatives. Slipknot is named for his affinity with ropes (hence the really cool costume).
But nowhere – nowhere – is there a mention of Slipknot’s ethnicity. Why? Because it does not matter. He’s a badass just like all the rest of them and that’s all that needs to be said.
It would, of course, be great to see more blind casting such as this, where actors are cast for their talent and not their skin color. There could easily have been an American Indian actor playing a scientist – or alien, for that matter – in “Independence Day: Resurgence.” But alas, there was not.
Things are getting incrementally better for American Indians’ representation in mainstream pop culture. For instance, it was great to see the “Twilight” films’ “Wolfpack” (played by Chaske Spencer, Alex Meraz, Kiowa Gordon and Bronson Pelletier) get so much attention. They were playing werewolves, but, hey, baby steps. It nonetheless shows that Native people are still here among the ranks. Like the “man bun” or Pokemon, we refuse to go away. Even if you don’t see us as much.
For American Indian actors are certainly not cast as often as other races. Roles for American Indians accounted for 0.3 percent of all on-screen parts in 2008, according to the New York Times, which cited figures from the Screen Actors Guild (which have not been updated since). And American Indians are only about 2 percent of the general population, anyway, according to census figures.
So yes, every little bit helps. Even as werewolves.