Reimagining classic Hollywood with Indigenous actors as iconic stars
Originally published on February 7, 2020.
Hollywood might be slow at diversifying who plays leading roles in film, but Navajo photographer Pamela J. Peters is helping to reimagine Hollywood films with Indigenous actors in those roles.
In her series Real NDNz Re-Take Hollywood, Peters recreated iconic classic Hollywood photographs, with Indigenous actors portraying stars like Audrey Hepburn, Elvis Presley and Ava Gardner.
The inspiration for the series came from her personal collection of coffee table photography books.
"I'm a huge fan of George Hurrell, he's a well-known classic Hollywood photographer. I just love what he did with light. I love that he just brought this beautiful glamour to his photos," said Peters.
"Looking at some of the [Indigenous] actors that I knew, I started visualizing them as these classic Hollywood icons like James Dean, and Tony Curtis, and Audrey Hepburn."
The first person Peters thought of for the series was actress Shayna Jackson.
"I was like, 'Oh my god, she could totally be an Audrey Hepburn, and why isn't she?,'" said Peters.
"I approached her and ... she just totally freaked out, she was excited.… [Later] I come to find out she's a huge Audrey Hepburn fan."
Peters's education in Hollywood cinema started when she was a kid, watching Western films with her dad on TV, but even then she suspected something was wrong with how Indigenous people were portrayed.
"My dad loved watching Saturday Western cinema and I started watching them with him and seeing his reaction to all these Western films was kind of weird," said Peters.
"He would cheer to 'kill the Indians,' and I'm like, 'Wait a minute, aren't we Indians?' … I think as a kid I knew something wasn't right."
Peters recalled that, years later, she saw actress Geraldine Keams on the silver screen, which changed her perception of Indigenous people in film.
"The one film that really impacted me as a child is when I saw The Outlaw Josey Wales … I was so intrigued by seeing that because I saw a Navajo woman in it, and she was speaking Navajo," said Peters.
"Then I come to find out [Keams is] from my community, and I was just amazed."
With her photographs, Peters wants to put Indigenous actors in the spotlight, and challenge the fact that Indigenous actors are still typically relegated to roles set in the past.
"I wanted to shed a light on a different perspective and show Native actors in a more dignified and more contemporary [way] … as opposed to seeing them mostly as relic Indians in buckskin and feathers and painted faces," said Peters.
"Because we're more than that. We're more than what's stuck in the past. We are in the present."