In Woman Walks Ahead, Catherine Weldon, a thirtysomething painter from New York, travels to the Dakota territory to meet the living legend Sitting Bull and paint his portrait. The film’s good intentions combine with Hollywood imperatives to produce a pleasant entertainment, where there could have been so much more.
The filmmakers want Weldon to be an independent woman, and at first, they seem to uphold a feminist message, when she is shown tossing a portrait of her hated late husband into the river. The problem is that making Catherine a strong, knowledgeable or wise person might conflict with their most important goal, to assign all these qualities to Sitting Bull. (Because the man and woman can’t both be strong and wise, right?) Above all, the filmmakers want to avoid the “white savior” trap of so many other Hollywood films about Native Americans. So Weldon must be rendered sufficiently feminine not to be a threat. She must be made ignorant, naive, and emotionally fragile. Oh, and did I mention that she’s deathly afraid of horses? Yet determined to travel in the West? During the mid-nineteenth century? No worries: Sitting Bull has improbably dainty feet, and loans her his butter-soft moccasins! I’m surprised he doesn’t give her a foot massage.
Within the storyline itself, Sitting Bull recognizes that his own culture subordinates women. The one time Catherine ventures a suggestion in front of the other Hunkpapa Lakota, he explains that he cannot appear to take instruction from a woman; he must wait a few moments before speaking in order to avoid that inference. How ironic, then, that the filmmakers themselves accept this tactic as legitimate, and dutifully erase Weldon’s historical role as his advisor.
The film bends over backward to deny that Catherine might know anything about Indian affairs, land values, politics, and treaties, or that she might be able to competently advise Sitting Bull. (In real life, one of her principal contributions as an activist was to provide information on such matters.) The real Weldon was a lifelong advocate for Native Americans, who rejected Victorian sexual mores, dumping her husband and bearing a son by her lover. Of course, none of this could be allowed to stand. The film’s Weldon is a childless widow, untainted by scandal and ignorant of politics, who impulsively travels to Standing Rock in the hope of painting the great man’s portrait. The real-life Catherine learned Lakota well enough to act as Sitting Bull’s translator and secretary, but throughout the film, Catherine is constantly asking, “What did he say?” “What’s going on?” “What just happened?” The filmmakers deserve credit for a respectful, authentic treatment of the Lakota language, and certain moments are very effective, as when Sitting Bull gives a rousing speech (translated by McLaughlin’s wife). Yet some of the scenes of untranslated Lakota speech are so lengthy that they break the dramatic illusion. Forcing the viewer to experience Catherine’s cluelessness makes a valid point, but a little of this goes a long way.
Woman Walks Ahead includes a few moments of gritty realism, which are undeniably powerful, and timely, even if they seem to belong to a different movie. When Weldon announces her intention to paint Sitting Bull’s portrait, one of the white men spits in her face, and hopes she will be raped and murdered. Later a group of townsmen administer a vicious beating, to punish her for getting too cozy with the enemy. This appears to be an embroidery on history, but the locals’ hostility toward Weldon was real. The press pilloried her as “The White Squaw” and derided her efforts to help him and the Lakota as the crazed behavior of a lovestruck female. Ironic then, that this film leans so heavily on the sexual attraction between Catherine and Sitting Bull.
Realism battles with romance in this movie, and romance usually wins. For a dose of guilty pleasure, try the scene where Sitting Bull (Michael Greyeyes) strips naked in front of Catherine, in order to change into his traditional garb for the portrait.
Or the scene where he bathes in the river, naked except for a loincloth, while she sketches him.
Or one of the other scenes where he strips, revealing his broad shoulders, fine chest (with tribal scarification) and lithe, tall, muscular form. The titillation doesn’t end there. The historical Catherine actually did live in Sitting Bull’s compound; in the film, this is turned into a scene where they shelter in the same teepee after a rain (how convenient that the persistent drought suddenly breaks!) and remove their clothing in order to warm themselves at the fire.
In her shift, Catherine is a disturbing sight for Sitting Bull, who gallantly absents himself, presumably in order to avoid temptation. In real life, Catherine would likely have been bedding down with his TWO WIVES and their children, who go unmentioned in the film (Catherine herself had a young son). Eileen Pollack, Catherine’s biographer, reports that Catherine received an invitation to become Wife Number Three– and declined.
Reducing the story to a sexy romance trivializes Sitting Bull, turning him into a scrapbook keepsake for the privileged white woman who will return to New York to treasure the memories of their intimacy–“The Chief And I.” Imagine if their relationship were portrayed as the complicated friendship it must have been in real life, not the “meet cute” portion of a mass-market romance. And imagine if Catherine had been portrayed by a less photogenic actress who actually looked to be in her fifties. (In the movie, Jessica Chastain hilariously refers to herself as “middle aged”; her hair remains perfectly coifed in most scenes, and she has access to lipstick at all times.) Michael Greyeyes does such a lovely job as Sitting Bull that I would hate to suggest a different actor, but imagine that we don’t get to see him naked (I know, it’s a sacrifice). And finally, imagine that Catherine is indeed a knowledgeable activist, and has disagreements with him about the best strategy for the Lakota. Imagine that Sitting Bull (gasp) is not always preternaturally wise and even-tempered, but that he sometimes gets mad, or even makes bad decisions.
In real life, Catherine broke with Sitting Bull over his attraction to the Ghost Dance, a ritual expression of apocalyptic hopes which she considered a dead end for the Lakota, and worse, a convenient excuse for the US government to falsely accuse him of stirring up rebellion. Sitting Bull was a religious leader as well as a war leader, and he took offense. He turned against her, and she left Standing Rock for good, only to learn later that Sitting Bull had been assassinated, and his people massacred at Wounded Knee. I don’t suggest that the Lakota could have prevented their sad fate by listening to her advice, but rather than risk the “white savior” charge, the film turns her into a weeping, helpless female-in-love who has to be schooled by a parade of men. It also suggests that Catherine’s presence somehow inspires Sitting Bull to renew his resistance, where before he had dwindled to “a broken-down old potato farmer.” By donning the forbidden dress of a Lakota warrior for his portrait, and trading flirtatious quips with this feisty and attractive female, the old lion learns to roar again! In this way, Sitting Bull’s long real-life history of resistance is diminished.
I don’t blame the actors, who all turn in laudable performances. Jessica Chastain is too young and beautiful for this role, but that’s Hollywood. She makes Catherine stubborn, impulsive and brave to the point of foolishness, all qualities which are intrinsic to the character as written. Michael Greyeyes ensures that Sitting Bull has a realistic personality, with touches of humor and a few glimpses of inner agony. He is believable, despite the hagiographic tendencies in the screenplay, and dignified, despite its voyeurism. Certain characters (Chaske Spencer as Sitting Bull’s nephew and Rulan Tangen as Mrs. McLaughlin) reveal the forces pushing the Lakota toward assimilation and compromise with the oppressor, when the only real choice is between death or survival. As an army intelligence officer paranoid about sedition, who both distrusts Catherine and is attracted to her, Sam Rockwell’s slimy Col. Silas Groves offers insults as if they were pickup lines.
The real-life James McLaughlin (Ciarán Hinds), the Indian agent at Standing Rock, had a Native American wife, as in the movie, and he believed that the best course for the Lakota was cultural assimilation and humble obedience, no matter how harshly they were oppressed. (McLaughlin, the author of My Friend the Indian, began his book with a description of “the untutored men of the grasslands” being “cuffed” by the US army into an understanding of the white man’s Beneficence.)
Hinds ably conveys McLaughlin’s matter-of-fact hostility towards Catherine Weldon and her meddling (in real life, he seems to have been the one responsible for the smear campaign). Still, McLaughlin also takes a cynical view of Groves and his disgusting tactic of starving the Sioux into accepting an unfair treaty. And when McLaughlin finally realizes that General Cook (Bill Camp) is plotting vengeance for Little Big Horn, the look in Hinds’ eye reveals that terrible knowledge. (Camp himself memorably renders Cook as a perverted romantic, nostalgic for the bygone days of wild, bloody battles and female captives in furs.)
Woman Walks Ahead offers star glamor and eye-candy for women, but it’s not particularly respectful of women. Unfortunately, its “chick flick” sensibility means that it will not be taken seriously as a portrait of Sitting Bull, much less the story of a woman of True Grit who acted with the courage of her convictions, yet failed in her mission (which was indeed to be a “white savior” of sorts, at a time when precious few others were offering help). In the era of Trump, the subject of white America’s real history regarding other races urgently needs to be examined. Even as WWA was being filmed at the Standing Rock reservation, it was the scene of protests over the construction of an oil pipeline which jeopardized the residents’ only water source. The US Government responded by attacking the protesters with pepper spray and dogs, and the pipeline has been finished by order of our current President. Sadly, some things haven’t changed in 130 years.