Mr. Arthur (Grainger Hines) fends off a Comanche war party attack in The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs.
Warning: This article contains plot spoilers for the film The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs
How the Coen Brothers handle Native American representation in The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs is, to put it mildly, not great.
The directing duo’s comic and critical anthology film about the Wild West is told from a very white perspective. First Nations people appear in two chapters, Near Algodones and The Gal Who Got Rattled. In the first, James Franco plays a criminal saved from a noose when a Comanche war party slaughters those who were about to hang him. The Gal Who Got Rattled is about settlers travelling by stagecoach along the Oregon Trail. In a key sequence, Alice (Zoe Kazan) is stranded alongside trail hand Mr. Arthur (Grainger Hines) as a Comanche war party stages an unsuccessful attack. Mr. Arthur shoots a few before they retreat, but Alice shoots herself for fear of being taken alive.
“They’re going to get killed for the Comanche stuff.”
That’s what Toronto film critic Adam Nayman uttered after seeing the film. He just published an atlas-sized book, The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties The Films Together (Harry N. Abrams) , exploring the filmmakers’ work and world view, from Blood Simple to Hail, Caesar!, the 50s Hollywood-set comedy that stirred controversy for its lack of diversity. That’s why Nayman expects the Coens to be dragged for Buster Scruggs’s primarily white cast, save for Indigenous people depicted as savages.
“Maybe they should be," Nayman says. "Or maybe the discussion should be had in a way that interrogates not just who made this particular movie, but who gets to make films in general, who films are for and what audience watches them.”
He was speaking during a NOW-convened roundtable of critics and filmmakers on Buster Scruggs and the past and current depiction of Indigenous lives. The participants also include Lisa Jackson, director of the VR project Biidaaban: First Light , and Tkaronto director Shane Belcourt.
Radheyan Simonpillai: Initial thoughts on Buster Scruggs?
Lisa Jackson: For what it is, it’s brilliant. I appreciated the Coen Brothers’ take on our particular moment seen through the lens of a caricatured Western past.
My bigger question has to do with which voices are actually out there, let alone at the level of the Coens. There are conversations to be had around the choice to give them a bit of a pass on using Indigenous people in a tongue-in-cheek way. We know that the caricature that they portrayed is very likely not how they feel about Indigenous people. It’s in keeping with the exaggeration of the whole movie. But there is a question of whether it’s responsible or not.
Shane Belcourt: It’s hard not to agree with that perspective. Look, my name is Shane. I’m named after a Western. My dad is Métis from Alberta and he named me after Alan Ladd’s character. We love Westerns: the cowboys and horses and the Wild West show stuff. At the same time, what’s missing from all Westerns is this sense that there were other people, another side to this story, and another side of humanity that’s not shown when you have a zombie attack of Indians coming over the horizon.
That stagecoach journey in The Gal Who Got Rattled is quite difficult for me. Of course, I’m cheering for Zoe Kazan’s Alice. I want her and the dog to survive. I want to see Mr. Arthur, the tough wrangling cowhand, save the day. Because that’s the way the story has always been told. Here come the […]
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