Smoke Signals (1998)

Smoke Signals is billed as the first wide-release film created by Native Americans. The filmmakers’ point of view is always clear, however it doesn’t limit them to ethnic concerns. Most movies use Native Americans as symbols, or as comic figures–this film gleefully exploits the stereotypes even as it deflates them. We come to recognize its characters as human beings, certainly affected and shaped by their heritage, but with concerns and struggles that are universal.

The first wide-release film created by Native Americans is a buddy movie. (And a road-trip movie, and a coming-of-age movie, and a drama, and a comedy. These guys have a lot of catching up to do.) Its unlikely companions represent opposite ends of the Indian Stereotype spectrum: Victor is the brooding warrior, Thomas the talkative geek. At one point, Victor accuses Thomas: “You don’t even know how to be a real Indian! How may times have you seen Dances With Wolves? One hundred? Two hundred?” Victor’s image of a “real” Indian is that of the stoic icon–“You’ve got to look like you’ve just killed a buffalo.” Absent fathers loom both literally and figuratively. Neither of them has a clue about how to act as men, and the only role models left are movie caricatures.

Smoke Signals (The First Wide-Release Film Created by Native Americans!) was written by Sherman Alexie based on his book of short stories called The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. Isn’t that a fantastic title? (One can imagine Victor and Thomas arguing about it–Smoke Signals certainly sounds more stoic and portentous.) The movie feels like a collection of short stories–its self-contained vignettes don’t have the flow of a wholly conceived story. On the other hand, Alexie is able to use the structure to elaborate his best idea, which is that it doesn’t matter if a story is true or not, only that there’s something worth saying and that it be said with joy. In this collage set in a land unfamiliar to us, Alexie has a lot that’s worth saying and above all his director and his actors say it with joy. They’re not polished, but they’re genuine.

Smoke Signals could easily have had a mission (it is, after all, The First Wide-Release Film Created by Native Americans)–there are a thousand axes worth grinding. Why has it taken so long to get this inside view of people who live as second-class citizens in their own country? What’s remarkable about the film is that it’s absolutely free of cynicism (and that’s why we’re drawn in, instead of pulling back on the defensive.) There’s a surprising moment when an insulting bigot humiliates Victor and Thomas and we’re momentarily jolted by shame. The conclusion of the scene is a visual tip-of-the-hat to another ongoing struggle for equal rights. It’s a terrific moment, but it doesn’t dominate the film; it’s just one concern among many.

Credit should be given to the Sundance Institute for encouraging this project (The First Wide-Release Film Created by Native Americans.) It awarded Alexie a grant to complete the script, and the film subsequently won the Sundance Film Festival Audience Award for best drama. Its director, Chris Eyer, was awarded the Sundance filmmakers trophy. Eyer says he feels a bit like Spike Lee must have when we made She’s Gotta Have It–he hopes his movie opens doors for Native American directors, and inspires them to believe in themselves as artists. On the basis of this wonderful debut, we hope so too.

January 27, 1999