Indigenous·Opinion

The Ridiculous 6 proves Hollywood still has 'an Indian problem'

'Adam Sandler’s film arrives when discourse around race has moved well past the point that insulting nicknames and reductionist portrayals can be considered provocative,' says film critic Jesse Wente.

Adam Sandler follows U.S. film tradition, 'reduces indigenous characters to props,' says Jesse Wente

Adam Sandler's comedic western, The Ridiculous 6, has drawn the ire of several critics. (Netflix)

Adam Sandler's The Ridiculous 6 is awful.

It's important to state that first, as I'm about to devote a lot of words to this film, and I wouldn't want the volume to be misconstrued as an indication of quality.

There is little redeeming here, as the film is as offensive as you've likely already heard and as uninspired a movie as I've seen, always reaching for only the most obvious and well-worn clichés to populate its intended, but utterly inadequate, parody.

I mean, a donkey's intestinal problems is one of the film's defining running gags (because it's an "ass," get it?), so the film never for a moment pretends to be anything but colossally stupid — or "ridiculous," if one is to take the title at face value.

But if it were only a stupid movie about a mule in need of Imodium, I never would have ventured past skipping over its name in my Netflix menu.

However, long before this film ever appeared in my or your queue, it was national news due to a protest by some of the indigenous cast who walked off set after reading the script and its derogatory language directed at women and elders. Upon seeing the final product, one wonders where anyone's agent was in all of this.

The protest stands as a brave and unique event in cinema history, one that disrupts the larger issue at hand: Hollywood continues to have an Indian problem.

'Reductive and racist'

Since the moment Thomas Edison and William Dickson tested their motion picture technology in 1894, using a troupe of indigenous wild west performers as the subjects, American movies have been obsessed with indigenous people, while rarely being concerned with getting anything right about their obsession.

The western is not only America's signature film genre, it's also one of the larger cultural symbols of the history of colonialism on Turtle Island. Its continued presence, akin to outdated sports mascots, is a reminder of a painful history and the colonial social order. Insulting us has rarely, until recently, been a concern.

Sandler is following in a long tradition of American filmmakers who turn to the western and its rich iconography for inspiration.

While Sandler's approach is expectedly more adolescent than say, Jim Jarmusch or Kelly Reichardt, it's not out of step with the desire American filmmakers have shown to embrace the most iconic cinematic genre the nation has created.

Sadler's direct inspiration is more clearly Mel Brooks and his own racially charged western parody, Blazing Saddles. Brooks's film, long considered a comedy classic, was originally released in 1974, when its screenplay (largely authored by comedian Richard Pryor), was cutting-edge in its satirical treatment of race, as much provocation as it was silly.

Sandler's film, authored by Sandler and longtime writing partner Tim Herlihy, arrives when discourse around race has moved well past the point that insulting nicknames and reductionist portrayals can be considered provocative.

From Johnny Depp's misguided attempt to resurrect The Lone Ranger, pictured here, to James Cameron's thinly veiled allegory Avatar, American filmmakers continue to return to indigenous people and the Western as a setting for storytelling that reduces indigenous characters to props, says Jesse Wente. (Disney/Bruckheimer Films/AP)
There was an opportunity for a film like The Ridiculous 6 to cleverly use the tropes of the western to display its own fallacy, to comically correct its problematic racial history. But that film would likely need to be made by a different filmmaker.

The Ridiculous 6 attempts to reach Blazing Saddles' tone and fails. Perhaps more frustrating, its narrative is more closely hewn from the spaghetti western, a sub-genre of foreign made westerns that rarely depict indigenous people, as they tend to be more concerned with the criminality of the old west and American conflicts with Mexico.

Thus Sandler's inclusion of First Nations is wholly unnecessary, except that it's the indigenous aspects of the story that are the butt of most of the humour. He needed us for the "comedy."

Genre beyond revision

Sandler isn't alone. From Johnny Depp's misguided attempt to resurrect The Lone Ranger to James Cameron's thinly veiled allegory Avatar, American filmmakers continue to return to indigenous people and the western as a setting for storytelling that reduces indigenous characters to props.

That is the tradition of America's key film genre, so their reference is inherited, as is their inability to see these stories from anything other than a colonial point of view.

While it's certainly no excuse, until it's fully acknowledged that film has been used to shape the image of indigenous people in the public consciousness to benefit colonialism and that this has contributed to a genocide, than this is going to continue.

The western, like indigenous sports mascots, are a product of their time, and that time has passed. While the importance of the genre to the art of filmmaking cannot be denied, neither can its legacy of racism and division.

The awfulness of The Ridiculous 6 is a symbol of a genre that is beyond revision or parody, one that no longer suggests a great America, but one deeply out of touch with its own history.'- Jesse Wente , film critic and broadcaster

Symptomatic of this larger issue, The Ridiculous 6 is but a minor event. Its placement on Netflix is as much a comment on the viability of Sandler and this brand of comedy in a theatrical setting, as it is indicative of the audience shift towards streaming.

Its success will likely be forever unknown, as viewership numbers are not shared by Netflix, nor is this the company's primary measure of success.

However, as an indicator of the current status of the western, the awfulness of The Ridiculous 6 is a symbol of a genre that is beyond revision or parody, one that no longer suggests a great America, but one deeply out of touch with its own history.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jesse Wente has appeared on CBC Radio’s Metro Morning as film and pop culture critic for 20 years. He previously served as Director of Film Programmes, at TIFF Bell Lightbox, where he oversaw theatrical, Cinematheque and Film Circuit programming. Wente is a self-described ‘Ojibwe dude’ with a national and international lens.

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