While the issue of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women has been extensively addressed in film and television within the Canadian entertainment industry, it has rarely been given a nod here in America. A 2018 film now available online in the U.S. helps keep it in focus.
According to a July 2020 article from nbcnews.com, “The absence of awareness or widespread scrutiny in these cases is the focus of a report (released July 30, 2020) that documented 2,306 missing Native American women and girls in the U.S., about 1,800 of whom were killed or vanished within the past 40 years.”
The NBC News story also references the first federal task force office, opened this year, that is “dedicated to solving cases of missing and murdered Native Americans and Alaskan Natives, including men.” It was announced at a special event by Ivanka Trump, the U.S. president’s daughter, and Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, a former oil and energy industry lobbyist.
A 2018 film directed by Don Mckellar titled “Black Spruce,” streaming now on Amazon and Vudu, uses this issue as part of a finely acted drama set in the wilds of northern Ontario, Canada and in the streets of Toronto. The film is based on a novel by Joseph Boyden and stars Tanaya Beatty, Brandon Oakes, Graham Greene, Tantoo Cardinal, and Kiowa Gordon. Producer Tina Keeper can be seen in a supporting role.
The film poses a number of questions at the outset. It opens with a violent attack on a Cree man we will come to know as Will Bird (the always impressive Brandon Oakes) and then in flashback we see what led to it and how the disappearance of a young woman became central to the conflict.
While it is Will we first see, the story is more about Annie Bird (Beatty) and her quest to find out what happened to her twin sister Suzanna, a fashion model who was poised to hit professional success. Annie and her uncle Will, who live in the small town of Moosonee are closer than she is to her mom, Lissette. They hunt and trap together and talk about things important to what remains of their family. Underlying their shared pain is the nagging disappearance of Suzanna.
Suzanna hated Moosonee and its small town ways. She couldn’t wait to get out. Then, she met a guy named Gus who scooped her up and took her to Toronto where she got in the modeling business. But, Gus was also into drugs and was connected to a small time trafficking ring in Moosonee.
When a friend wins big at the local casino, she invites Annie to a vacation getaway in Toronto. Annie decides to use the opportunity to follow-up on the search for her sister, which has become forgotten or lost in red tape. As Annie chips away at clues, and even partly succumbs to the way the media has exploited Native women, back home Will is dealing with local drug ring leader Marius (Wesley French) who believes Annie has something to do with a missing stash of drugs held by Gus and Suzanne, which is why she left all of a sudden to Toronto. Tying Moosonee to Toronto is a dangerous kingpin named Danny (Joey Klein).
Mckellar’s film, based on a novel by Joseph Boyden, is a study in cinema storytelling, letting us know the elements of the plot in its own time, while offering a viewpoint that avoids conventional stereotypes of Native people. The film has its detractors, though. Mckellar and Boyden have both come under fire for being non-Native on Mckellar’s part and lying about Native background on Boyden’s. However, one may believe this colors the drama, in this critic’s opinion, the movie is successful in presenting a story with honesty, intelligence, authenticity and heart.
“Black Spruce” is not rated, but does contain language, violence, brief nudity and sexual sitations. It is streaming now on Amazon and Vudu.
Tempo grade: A.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The Mitchell Storyteller 7 Theatres in Taos and the Taos Community Auditorium remain closed for the time being in response to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. Until they reopen, we will focus on movies available online.