Film & Television

‘Beans’: Coming of Age in the Oka Crisis

In 1973, Marlon Brando, considered by many to be the finest actor of his generation, was awarded — but refused — the Best Actor Academy Award for his iconic performance in The Godfather. When Roger Moore and Liv Ullman announced his win, an indigenous American woman named Sacheen Littlefeather came to the stage. She declined the award and began reading from Brando’s 15-page statement:

“I’m representing Marlon Brando this evening and he has asked me to tell you . . . that he very regretfully cannot accept this very generous award. And the reasons for this being are the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry.” Littlefeather was booed by many (two of her biggest detractors, appropriately enough, were Clint Eastwood and John Wayne), but Brando’s entire statement was printed in the New York Post the following day. In it, he wrote:

“The motion picture community has been as responsible as any for degrading the Indian and making a mockery of his character, describing him as savage, hostile and evil. It’s hard enough for children to grow up in this world. When Indian children . . . see their race depicted as they are in films, their minds become injured in ways we can never know.”

This was nearly 50 years ago (in fact, Brando himself would be considered politically incorrect today for using the term “Indian”), and it’s fair to say that the Academy and the motion picture industry have made progress in the areas of diversity and cross-cultural respect. But that progress is slow and not all-inclusive. Not yet. 

Brando made a powerful point about depictions onscreen; he wasn’t talking about Native American directors or screenwriters. But, a half century later, I’m quite certain he would applaud the work of Tracey Deer, a Canadian documentarian of Mohawk descent, who has just released her first feature film, Beans.

Beans focuses on the Oka Crisis, a 1990 standoff between Mohawk protesters and the Quebec police. The issue at hand: whether the (white) community of Kanesatake would be allowed to mow down ancestral Mohawk land, including sacred burial grounds, to expand the Club de golf d’Oka with an additional nine holes and 60 condominiums. Over the course of 78 days, barricades were erected on both sides, a major commuter bridge was seized, tear gas and concussion grenades were deployed, at least one police officer was killed, and the area erupted in racial violence and hate. When the Premier of Quebec asked for assistance from the Canadian Army, he proclaimed, “We have to assume the protection of our people.” Apparently, the Mohawk, who predated French and English colonists by centuries, were not considered “our people.”

Against all of this true — and shockingly recent — history, Deer tells the story of 12-year-old Tekehentahkwa, a Mohawk girl on the cusp of womanhood. We first see her working hard to persuade the headmistress of an elite, white secondary school (tellingly called Queen Heights Academy) that she deserves a chance to become a doctor or lawyer. When the headmistress struggles to pronounce her full name, Tekehentahkwa suggests she just call her Beans. “Everyone does.”

Beans is endearing from the start, played with great gusto by luminous (and monomynous) young Mohawk actress Kiawentiio (Anne with an E, of which Deer is an executive producer). Although the serious events of the Oka Crisis are driven by adults (and mostly male adults), it’s through Beans’s eyes that Deer invites us to witness the struggle.

Deer is best known for her documentaries Club Native and Mohawk Girls (which she adapted as a TV series). Like Beans, she was a young adolescent in 1990, and she remembers the Crisis as “a startling way to understand my place in this country as an indigenous woman.” As she explained to The Wrap during last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, “The emotional journey that she goes on is very much inspired by my own journey.”

It’s a journey that Deer has wanted to film for some time, “After years of struggling with the script, the one essential truth was that as a 12-year-old, I didn’t realize what was going on. So, once I centered on this 12-year-old’s experience and let the audience experience events as she does — sometimes with information and sometimes without — that really helped propel the story forward.”

Beans is on two journeys, actually. She is coming to terms with her family’s ancestral and cultural identity (and the rancor it inspires in whites who care more about their golf course than their “First Nation” neighbors). At the same time, she is trying on different, more grownup personas. She falls in with a group of older and wilder kids, tries alcohol, tries cursing (in a funny scene in front of her own mirror), and begins to experiment with sex. Although we can’t help but worry for her as her behavior becomes ever riskier, it isn’t hard to understand her motivation. Having grown up assuming she and her family belonged, she’s had a rude and quite terrifying awakening. She wants to be tough — whether that’s emulating an older, more jaded girl (Paulina Alexis, memorable here), confronting Canadian police officers (“You’re supposed to protect us!”), or attacking a white girl at the motel to which she, her mother, and sister have gone for safety.

Beans’s mother, Lily (Rainbow Dickerson), is a voice of reason, not only as her daughter acts out, but in the conflict itself. When both Mohawk protesters and Canadian police raise their guns, Lily, many months pregnant, pulls other wives out to form a human chain between the warring camps. There’s no question that the Crisis is the consequence of men; women and children are caught dangerously in the middle. 

Despite its ambitious and powerful message, Beans feels a bit wooden at times. Some dialogue is forced (Lily warns her husband, “You make damn sure this doesn’t turn into cowboys and Indians”) and some of the acting is a bit too strident. Interestingly, the younger cast members display more subtlety in their roles (particularly Kiawentiio and Alexis, who evolves from a stock mean girl to someone who earns our empathy with just one line). That said, however, the film is engaging and well worth watching. 

When people (yes, like me) criticize Hollywood for producing so much work from a single group (cisgender white men), it isn’t just a matter of fairness and equity — although both of those are tremendously important. It’s also because we, as the audience, are being told only the stories of one group. Movie screenwriters and directors have an unparalleled opportunity to inform and educate, as well as entertain. Through their work, we can learn about the lives, cultures, and concerns of people who don’t look or live like us. Mark Twain famously said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” I would argue that movies have much the same power. Consider seminal films about the African American experience, like 1972’s Sounder (whose lead actor, Paul Winfield, was nominated along with Godfathers Brando), One Night in Miami, or the more recent Passing. These are stories that may not be told in grade-school curricula. The industry has yet to embrace all of the stories of indigenous people and so many other groups.

Beans is not a masterpiece, but it’s a significant debut. I look forward to watching Deer hone her craft as a filmmaker — perhaps next time with a bigger budget and wider distribution.

Because I’m sure she still has stories  to tell.

Beans is available to rent on Amazon.

 

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