Woman Walks Ahead may be the Dances with Wolves of my generation. That is to say, Susanna White’s film, which had its world premiere at TIFF, is technically well made and expresses tolerant sentiments while also showing all of the attendant problems of a white saviour movie.
The film follows Catherine Weldon (Jessica Chastain), a fictionalized version of the real-life Native American rights activist, as she travels to Standing Rock to paint a portrait of Sitting Bull (Michael Greyeyes) and fulfill her lifelong dream to become a professional artist. There, she is so moved by what she sees that she helps organize protests against the new government treaty, falls in love with Sitting Bull, and serves as witness to his death.
Although loosely based on history, Steven Knight’s script takes several liberties, including erasing Sitting Bull’s wife from the picture, and side-stepping significant differences of opinion that led Sitting Bull and Weldon to part ways in real life. The real issue, though, is that it confuses different types of oppression, and seems to propose that people who’ve experienced misogyny are uniquely qualified to understand racism and vice versa. In the process, it glosses over the specifics of each situation in favour of recycling the message that all suffering is the same.
Much like Dances with Wolves was about John Dunbar’s desire to find meaning on the frontier and transcend the limits of his culture by becoming an honorary Sioux, Woman Walks Ahead (Weldon’s Indian name) is about Weldon’s desire to do the same. The difference between the two films is that, as a woman in the 1880s, Weldon begins from a less privileged position. Her journey of personal empowerment does have some legitimacy on its own — it’s just unfortunate that it also involves appropriating Indigenous cultures, and romanticizing their wisdom and freedom while she braids feathers in her hair.
Midway through the film, there’s a sequence where Weldon relates a story from her childhood, in which her father locked her in a barn because she wiped her mouth with her sleeve. Sitting Bull is deeply troubled by this, and feels a strong sense of empathy for her. A few scenes later, he shares that he killed his first man at the age of 13 during a tribal war and that, since then, he’s watched his friends and the other leaders who fought beside him massacred as European settlers spread across their land. Weldon gets spat on and punched in the face by white men when she tries to stand up for her beliefs. Some of the men start looking for rope so they can hang her. Sitting Bull gets shot in the chest.
My feeling is that there are no winners in any contest to see who’s suffering more, and I’m not interested in arguing over whether Sitting Bull or Weldon has it “worse” in this movie – I’m interested in arguing that they have it different, and that trying to draw too much of a parallel between their situations means ignoring the parts of those situations that are specific to misogyny and racism or colonialism in particular. It also means missing an opportunity to explore the much more pressing, real-life problem of how people who experience different types of oppression can be allies to each other without the need for a “magic mind meld” that makes them understand each other’s pain.
Another important difference from Dances with Wolves is that Woman Walks Ahead spends more time flirting with the idea that Weldon’s decision to side with people regarded as the enemy will result in a loss of status. From the moment she gets on the train for Standing Rock, she’s confronted by men who verbally and physically attack her, and is later slandered in the press. None of the other white people in this movie seem interested in hearing what she has to say, and she doesn’t have that male sense of confidence that people will admire what she does.
At the same time, Weldon is extremely wealthy, and this allows her to solve most of her problems with money and family connections — an option that wouldn’t be available to most women, white or brown, at this or any other point in history. After recovering from a particularly violent assault in town, her very next step is to threaten the ranking officers at the outpost, telling them that her powerful friends in Washington will hear about it if she’s touched again. The fact that this threat seems to work — and the fact that one of the same officers who bullied her early in the film later makes a special effort to save her from death — shows how much Woman Walks Ahead is still stacked in Weldon’s favour, despite however many people spit at her and accuse her of treason.
The “victory lap” of sorts that she does through other people’s pain takes attention away from much more interesting tensions in the film, like whether it’s right or realistic to expect army officers who’ve been in active combat to forgive and befriend the very people they fought against. Or the odd situation that Sitting Bull finds himself in as a general without a war. Or the apparent disagreement that the real-life Weldon and Sitting Bull had over the Ghost Dance — a conflict completely removed from the movie.
Woman Walks Ahead instead decides to focus on the least interesting question of all: whether Weldon will manage to save her new friends, or be left to cry in heartbreak as though, by feeling bad enough about it, we can undo America’s violent history.