Resistance to Institutional Oppressions: 'Holy Man' and 'Love Free or Die'

Douglas White of Holy Man (2011)

A spiritual leader of an oppressed people and the most dangerous man in the Anglican church.

Holy Man: The USA vs. Douglas White

Director: Jennifer Jessum
Cast: Russell Means, Floyd Red Crow Westerman, Leonard Crow Dog, Arvol Looking Horse, Fred Alan Wolf, Martin Sheen (Narrator)
Rated: NR
Studio: Flying Limbs Productions
Year: 2011
US date: 2012-08-10 (DocuWeeks)

Love Free or Die

Director: Macky Alston
Cast: Gene Robinson, Jon Bruno, Barbara Harris, Mark Andrew
Rated: NR
Studio: Reveal Productions
Year: 2011
US date: 2012-08-03 (DocuWeeks)

"We know history," says Albert White Hat Sr., of Sinte Gleska University. "If I sit here and think about it, I'm gonna get angry and I'm gonna kill somebody, if I think of all the injustices that are done. But we don’t think that way," he adds. "All my relatives, if anything, we want to have peace. We want to get along with everybody."

We do know the history he cites here, the one in which Europeans arrive in the so-called new world and spend several hundred years fighting and killing native peoples, removing them to reservations. That history is the inexorable backdrop for Holy Man: The USA vs. Douglas White. Screening at DocuWeeks starting 10 August in New York and 17 August in Los Angeles, Jennifer Jessum's documentary recounts what happened to White, an Oglala Sioux medicine man from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, incarcerated by the United States government in 1993. He died 16 years later, in prison.

The case against White was essentially the same one that had been dismissed by a tribal court two tears earlier, initiated when his wife accused him of molesting his two young grandsons. The tribal court dismissed the case for lack of evidence; the federal government revisited and pursued it, White's supporters argue here, in order to contain his perceived threat, as a spiritual leader of an oppressed people.

Holy Man offers brief illustrations of White's spiritual energy before it lays into the problems with the case against him. For the first, you see grainy footage of White at work and testimonies to his effectiveness: quantum physicist Fred Alan Wolf describes an episode where, after drumming and chanting and sitting in a circle, "light started popping" through the walls, "like green glowing fireflies." Russell Means remarks White's "humble beauty," and other interviewees recall that he cured cancer and a case of Bell's palsy.

Following these stories of spiritual strength and generosity, the film cuts to a shot of the American flag, filling the frame as the story turns to the decision to indict White, and a series of court documents, in dissolving close-ups. (The case included testimony by the grandsons, who later recanted and described their treatment by investigators as manipulative and coercive.) These images -- along with shots of the dead cars, dried grasses, and empty roads of the reservation -- lead to the assessment by Means that such depression is systemic. His is "the poorest county in America by design and the entire colonial setup of the reservation concentration camp setup is designed for failure," he argues, "That's what colonialism is all about, to ensure failure, to ensure poverty, to ensure diseases, to ensure hopelessness."

Here again, the film makes a calculated cut, this time to an interview with Darlene Chytka, one of the all-white jurors who sentenced White to 24 years in prison, based on evidence that none of the jurors here asserts was convincing. Denying that her judgment of the case had anything to do with race, she says, "I really can't remember what he looked like at all, but I always wonder, how do these people become medicine men?... And what's their motivation?" A second juror, Wanda Brown, adds, "I think a lot of things are maybe given to them and maybe they don’t take care of them as well as if they had earned it or worked for it or something. You drive through there and you see house after house with the windows open and the curtains flying in the breeze. There's not a lot of pride."

The film makes clear its strategy, as anyone who might defend the conviction undermines him or her own story (this happens with US attorneys as well). The verdict seems a function of what Means describes as the "unholy racism against the American Indian [which] comes from whenever anyone looks at us, in the Americas, they feel guilty." This is one piece of his diagnosis; the other is the result of such prejudice. At one point Means -- identified by the film as "Oglala Nation Patriot" -- cautions, "What happens to the Indian eventually happens to the American," he asserts. "The colonization practiced and perfected on us has been exported to the world, including the American people." The camera cuts to Mount Rushmore and the US flag, again filling the screen, before turning back to Means, who looks directly into the camera as he says, "You all have got the Patriot Act now. Welcome to the club, to the reservation, by the way."

Love Free or Die (2012)

As you see in Love Free or Die, screening at DocuWeeks beginning 3 August in New York and the 24th in Los Angeles, Episcopalians in New Hampshire might have a sense of what being in this club feels like, as they also faced efforts at containment when, in 2003, Gene Robinson became the first openly gay bishop in the history of Christendom. Dubbed the "most dangerous man in the Anglican church," Robinson was not invited to the 2008 Lambeth Conference in Canterbury, England, an indication of how hard the Anglican Church would push back against this step by the Church members of New Hampshire.

Macky Alston's film follows Robinson's efforts to make his case public, as he heads to Canterbury anyway. Here, he says, "I will be making myself available to anyone who wants to have this new experience that many people in the Anglican Communion have never had, which is to talk to an unashamedly gay, unashamedly Christian person." Robinson's sense of humor, as well as the warmth he shares with his 20-year partner Mark, his daughters, and his parishioners, help to make the case against Archbishop Rowan Williams. In turn, Williams (along with Rick Warren, by the way) does his part, making something of a campaign to condemn Robinson and then to break apart the Anglican Church rather than allow the Episcopalians to have their way.

Bishop Barbara Harris, the first female Anglican bishop, puts the case bluntly. "Get real. Gene Robinson is certainly not the first gay bishop in the Church," she says. "If the election of a gay bishop in a little corner of the Anglican communion like New Hampshire threatens to split the church, that's telling me that the times, they are a changing." Just so, the movie tracks various efforts to move that change along, speaking engagements for Robinson, his support of gay pride events, and the 2009 General Convention in Anaheim, where the Church votes on whether to accept gay bishops and also, to support gay marriage.

Love Free or Die, like Holy Man, doesn't leave much room for opponents to sound persuasive, even though some interview subjects might think they're making their cases. Change is hard for those used to wielding power. Bishop Jon Bruno observes, "The Church always has the tendency to claw on the carpet as it's being dragged out of the past." That clawing is ugly in Love Free or Die, as Robinson receives hate mail and death threats. But he sees in this an opportunity for the Church to act against fear. "It's time religious institutions took responsibility for what their speech empowers people to do," the bishop says. He's taken a first step.

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