Woman Walks Ahead (2018)
Written by Steven Knight
Directed by Susanna White
In 1890, Brooklyn-ite Catherine Weldon traveled to the Dakotas with a single goal: to paint the portrait of Cheif Sitting Bull. What she finds is the Lakota broken from pressures of the U.S. government, forced onto ever-shrinking reservations. Sitting Bull isn’t keen on sitting for this painting, feeling betrayed by the white men he’s been dealing with for most of his life. Weldon takes up the challenge of convincing him while dealing with U.S. forces that would prefer she return home and not become involved in the war that is on the verge of breaking out.
Woman Walks Ahead had the opportunity to tell an important and interesting story about the final days of the 19th century Native Americans but ultimately failed due to some glaring historical inaccuracies and an over-romanticizing of the history. There’s a strong sense of the story being told from a white perspective which, no surprise, is basically how these sorts of stories are always told. The main character is a wealthy white widow from New York City who becomes a savior figure to the Lakota and helps Sitting Bull regain his pride again. This all feels borderline offensive, and the tragedy of Sitting Bull ends up being reframed as a tragedy Weldon feels more intensely than others. The result is a film that feels like a bodice ripper novel version of a pretty damn severe and tragic moment in the history of our country and the Lakota people. There’s a certain level of thoughtlessness in the production of the film that would lead to this.
The most significant inaccuracy in the script is the tribal member vote on whether their reservation would be allocated to the government, and therefore be given assistance yet have to give up independence. The last time a tribe was allowed a vote on this matter was 1868 so by the time 1890 comes around the US government is dictating what happens to reservation land. This means the entire climactic moment of Woman Walks Ahead is a rewriting of history for dramatic purposes. The script was penned by a British screenwriter, and a British director directs the film. I can’t help but think some more in-depth research would have benefited the overall production.
The actors aren’t bad, and it is a good line up. Jessica Chastain, Sam Rockwell, and Ciaran Hinds all do an excellent job. Michael Greyeyes, who plays Sitting Bull, does a great job with what he is given and was a new, very talented face to me. The decision to turn this story into a smoldering romance between Weldon and Sitting Bull undermines any goodwill I could have for the production. The movie becomes more about Weldon’s self-actualization with the plight of the Lakota taking a secondary seat. You walk away feeling like the picture is a 19th-century reimagining of Eat, Pray, Love. This is not one of A24’s best moments, but that always seems to be the case when the DirecTV logo follows their logo.