My country was founded in genocide, as was our neighbour to the south. This is a fact that we still haven’t dealt with as evidenced by how many Canadians and Americans would find my initial statement controversial – even offensive – despite its truth. I was born in the last fifth of the 20th century in Canada’s largest city and so it is hard for me to relate to personally relate to events that happened as hundred years or more before my birth, in parts of the country unrecognizable to a city boy such as myself. One way to attempt to bridge that divide is by reading history. But another, more effective means is art. Unfortunately, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee is not that piece of art.
This is a well-meaning film and, as one of the first attempts I am aware of for Hollywood (HBO substituting for “Hollywood” in this case) to confront this past, it must be commended because, well, at least they tried.
But they have tried to do too much with too little time. The opening scenes in particular are so full of expository dialogue as to be downright painful, as characters tell us the history of the tribes in and the other tribes in the Black Hills and their relations with the US. I feel like the choice here was to make a documentary or make a movie and the filmmakers weren’t sure, so they tried to find a middle ground. It does not work.
Things improve once Ohiyesa is grown but there is still a lot of exposition and very little character development outside of Ohiyesa himself and maybe Sitting Bull. It turns into more of a conventional film at this point, which is to its benefit.
I am trying to decide whether this would be better as a longer miniseries or if they should have dropped the actors and done a Ken Burns-style documentary. I think they needed to pick one style and then they might have really had something.
As it stands, we get a frustrating but affecting film that could have been so much more – a real landmark of American cinema – had some additional care been taken to make it as an actual story, rather than something stuck between documentary and drama. I appreciate the effort, but this story deserves so much more.
PS: Much of the action occurs at Standing Rock, so watching this at this current time is…upsetting.