Which one is supposed to be Jim Thorpe? Still image: Jim Thorpe – All-American / Warner Bros.

James Giago Davies: Hollywood's not so great record with Indian athletes

Indian athletes and Hollywood

By James Giago Davies
Native Sun News Today Columnist

Back in 1951 Hollywood miscast Burt Lancaster as “Jim Thorpe: All American,” and catering to the cornball standard of that time, Thorpe accepts his gold medal from the King of Sweden, and says, “Thank you, your majesty.”

Throughout that movie, Thorpe is Indian only to the degree they darkened his skin. Not one other aspect of his real personality and unrefined charm comes through.

It would be nice to see Hollywood cast an actual Indian actor as Thorpe, or at least a Mexican (since they are mostly Indio anyway), but even if they did, the script would be written by a skilled screenwriter who thinks he can visit a reservation for a few days and then write a script that realistically portrays Indians. Even if he could, and no screen writer ever could, Hollywood would take a red pen to every aspect that resonates with the genuine nature of Indians, and edit it out, thinking, “There, we fixed it!”

I suppose they will cast Denzel Washington as Adolf Hitler before the real Thorpe is ever portrayed on the silver screen, and Denzel will be more believable as Hitler than Lancaster was as Thorpe. White folks feel an abiding obligation to turn heroes of color into, well, white folks. Disney specializes in doing that, even to animals, like the Lion King, Mustapha has the personality of an African king, but his kid acts white, acts like a cool, laid-back California teenager.

Not that Hollywood doesn’t make some concessions, after all, there are parts of America so stridently white, even Hitler would say, “People just act way too white around here...”

Robbie Benson was miscast as Billy Mills in Running Brave. Attempts were made in that movie to show the actual state of the Pine Ridge Reservation where Mills grew up, so it was better than the Thorpe flick, but since that is my home reservation, and I am somewhat of an expert on its history, and the personalities of the people enrolled there, and I have met the actual Billy Mills, the movie was tough to watch. It shows a world that doesn’t exist to an audience that wants a hero who reminds them of themselves.

There have been a lot of Indian ballplayers they could make a movie about: Lou Sockalexis, Chief Bender, Zack Wheat, Indian Bob Johnson, Roy Johnson (he was Indian Bob’s brother, but for some reason he wasn’t called Indian Roy), Allie Reynolds, and Jacoby Ellsbury. What I can’t understand is why wasn’t Thorpe called Indian Jim Thorpe, or Chief Thorpe, or better yet, since he toted the pigskin in the fledgling NFL—Chief Indian Jim Thorpe: All American Redskin.

But the best Indian athlete movies would be about local legends, guys like Eldon Marshall, who has taken White River to the South Dakota State B basketball tournament a dozen years straight, but I guess that is not interesting. If his life had been rocked by some scandal or tragedy, or his school bus got abducted by aliens, hopefully all three, that movie would get made tomorrow, and Eldon would be miscast.


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Indian athletes and Hollywood
James Giago Davies is an enrolled member of the Oglala Lakota Tribe. He can be reached at skindiesel@msn.com

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