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Smoke Signals (1998) rises from the ashes of cinematic stereotypes to become a trailblazing film that speaks to the heart of Native American experiences. Directed by Chris Eyre and based on Sherman Alexie's short story collection, "The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven," this film isn't just a road trip movie—it's a journey into identity, friendship, and the nuanced layers of Native American life.
The 90s were a wacky decade for the American film industry: In the 1990s, the American independent film scene had an awakening. While Michael Bay made his name with The Rock (1996) and Armageddon (1998), filmmakers like Cheryl Dunye, Richard Linklater, the Coen Brothers, and Kevin Smith became key figures in a burgeoning indie scene. Even Tarantino was considered indie back in the 90s. While Pulp Fiction (1994) brought Tarantino into the spotlight, Dunye's The Watermelon Woman (1996) made waves for its exploration of race, sexuality, and identity. These directors, with works such as Slacker (1990) Fargo (1996), and Clerks (1994), played pivotal roles in steering indie cinema toward a diverse and authentic direction. The era marked a rebellion against formulaic storytelling, embracing a DIY ethos that allowed diverse voices to flourish. This cinematic awakening challenged conventional narratives, opening the doors to fresh, edgy, and culturally relevant stories that resonated with audiences seeking something beyond Hollywood norms. Enter Smoke Signals:
We open on Victor Joseph (Adam Beach) and Thomas Builds-the-Fire (Evan Adams), two young Coeur d'Alene men from an Idaho (as it’s now known) reservation, embarking on a quest to retrieve the ashes of Victor's estranged father. The journey is not just a physical one; it's a poignant exploration of cultural inheritance, personal healing, and the complex ties that bind the Native American community.
The film's title, "Smoke Signals," conveys the weight of tradition and communication. The smoke signals become a metaphor for how the characters communicate, not just through words but through shared history, pain, and the unspoken understanding of their shared heritage. It's a refreshing departure from the usual cinematic portrayal of Native Americans, offering an authentic, witty, and profoundly moving narrative.
Victor, a brooding young man burdened by the legacy of a troubled relationship with his father, is juxtaposed against Thomas, a quirky storyteller with a penchant for weaving tales that blend tradition with modernity. Their dynamic is a masterclass in character development that might be seen as cliché today, though time will surely be kind to this portrayal. The film excels at showcasing the diversity of personalities within the Native American experience. With his irrepressible optimism, Thomas brings levity to the film, making it clear that Native American stories can be as diverse and multifaceted as any other.
Two aspects of any film, but specifically this film, that take it from good to great: The cinematography in Smoke Signals is more than just visually arresting—it's a deliberate choice (as we always hope cinematography is) that frames the characters against the breathtaking backdrop of the Pacific Northwest. The landscapes become an integral part of the storytelling, emphasizing the connection between the characters and the land they call home. And the film's soundtrack, infused with indigenous music, is a powerful accompaniment to the narrative. It enriches the viewing experience and reinforces the cultural authenticity permeating every frame of the movie.
The movie stood out in the cinematic landscape for its ability to balance humor and poignancy. Through the humor-laden banter between Victor and Thomas, the film tackles serious issues such as identity crisis, cultural displacement, and the impact of historical trauma on Native American communities. It's a delicate dance that Smoke Signals executes flawlessly, inviting the audience to laugh and reflect.
As the journey unfolds, so does the emotional depth of the characters—Victor's stoic exterior crumbles, revealing the vulnerability beneath. Thomas's eccentricity becomes a source of strength rather than mere comic relief. Together, they navigate the complexities of friendship, family, and forgiveness in a narrative that is as universal as it is culturally specific.
Despite what the goofy 90s trailer might lead you to believe, Smoke Signals is a landmark in the cinematic landscape, breaking free from stereotypes to tell a story that resonates across cultures. It stands as a testament to the power of storytelling to bridge gaps, heal wounds, and celebrate the tapestry of Native American experiences. It’s not the first movie with a Native American writer or director, but it is credited as the first feature-length film written, directed, and produced by Native Americans. In the signals rising from the film, a call takes shape for more diverse and authentic narratives that elevate the voices of indigenous storytellers.
Written by Sherman Alexie; Directed by Chris Eyre
Recommended way to watch (at time of publication): Available to rent on all major streaming services.