When Chris Rock took to the stage on Sunday as the host of the 88th Academy Awards, many expected him to ether the academy and the industry for not doing enough to foster minority talent. Maybe, he’d throw in some of the scathing language he used in 2014 when he penned an essay about Hollywood’s race problem.
“Forget whether Hollywood is black enough,” he wrote. “A better question is: Is Hollywood Mexican enough? You’re in LA, you’ve got to try not to to hire Mexicans.”
Instead, this weekend, Rock defined Hollywood’s diversity issue as strictly white and black. And some felt let down by Rock, who didn’t use his platform (34 million viewers) to talk about other underrepresented groups. It’s especially disappointing when one of the night’s biggest films (The Revenant) heavily featured natives – a community that hasn’t been portrayed accurately in the past.
In an essay for Variety, three Native Americans – producer and director Chris Eyre, associate professor at California State University, San Marcos Joely Proudfit, and producer and actress Heather Rae – talked about how little has changed in the film industry since natives first appeared on camera in 1894.
“We have yet to see a fresh, authentic perspective on life as an American Indian (yes, you can say ‘Indian’) from the Hollywood Studios,” the essay reads. “Despite playing an integral role in the birth of cinema, we have never had a real seat at the table when it comes to industry conversations about diversity. More often than not, American Indian characters are portrayed with grand misunderstanding, as if we are being done a big favor.”
Unlike The Revenant, which is told from Leonardo DiCaprio’s (white) point of view, Colombia’s nominee El abrazo de la serpiente (Embrace of the Serpent) does something that Hollywood films about this community rarely do – it’s told from the perspective of an indigenous person. Writer-director Ciro Guerra based his story of on the journals of two foreign scientists exploring the Colombian Amazon but flipped the POV.
“I think that’s what we can do in Latin American cinema, what we can do in cinemas that are not Hollywood,” Guerra told us. “We can flip history on its head. And when we do that what we think of history becomes different. You know, you realize that history has only been told from one side.”
In honor of the contributions of indigenous peoples to this year’s most lauded films, here’s a closer look at the actors who were the heart of these stories.
Arthur Redcloud, 'The Revenant'
Arthur Redcloud played Hikuc in The Revenant. He’s Navajo and lives in Colleyville, Texas, where he drives a truck full time. In an interview with WFAA-TV, he showed Cynthia Izaguirre what he had kept from being on the set of The Revenant, and the framed photo that Alejandro G. Iñárritu gifted him.
He got a tip from a friend about an open casting in Santa Fe, and he decided to go. He didn’t expect it to be as big a role as it was, but he trained with an acting coach to prepare. He hopes The Revenant leads to other roles.
Antonio Bolivar, 'Embrace of the Serpent'
At this year’s Oscars, Antonio Bolivar took photographs with many of Hollywood’s top thespians. (Check out some photos here.) He played the old version of Karamakate in Embrace of the Serpent.
The Colombian man belongs to an almost extinct indigenous group, according to El Colombiano. He told Bluradio that designers told him that he shouldn’t wear the loincloths he normally wears, but he did rep his culture on the red carpet.
Melaw Nakehk'o, 'The Revenant'
Melaw Nakehk’o played Powaqa, Leo’s wife, in The Revenant. Her character’s story is mostly told through flashbacks. She is Dehcho and Denesuline Dene. She was born in Fort Simpson in Canada.
She applauded the film for making sure the roles went to indigenous actors. “It’s a huge Hollywood film, and it was really amazing to see the lengths that they went on this film to have indigenous actors and indigenous talent playing these parts,” she told CBC. “They were looking for indigenous people to play these parts, and they were able to be true to that.”
In the film, her character is kidnapped, which Nakehk’o explains is a systemic problem in the United States and Canada. “We are more susceptible to violence than any other ethnic group in North America,” she said. “I feel like I had to honour those indigenous women and do the best I can.”
Nilbio Torres, 'Embrace of the Serpent'
Nilbio Torres is the young version of Karamakate in Embrace of the Serpent. He is from Santa Marta. He went from being an extra to being the being the protagonist, according to W Radio.
Being in an Oscar-nominated film made him proud, because it made him feel that people from his community “could go on to do things that white people do, like movies.”
Forrest Goodluck, 'The Revenant'
17-year-old Forrest Goodluck plays DiCaprio’s son, Hawk, in The Revenant. He is from Albuquerque, New Mexico, and he is currently in the process of applying to college. He belongs to several tribes, like Navaja, Mandan, Hidatsa, and Tsimshian.
In an interview with Yahoo, he described The Revenant as a “crazy” experience. “One minute I’m in a plane in New Mexico flying over to L.A. and Calgary for these weeklong trips to perfect this character,” he said. “They really took faith in me. I’m really glad Alejandro saw something in me.”
To prepare for the role, he worked with Angela Gibbs, who helped Michael Keaton get ready for Birdman.
Duane Howard, 'The Revenant'
Duane Howard played Elk Dog in The Revenant. He was born in the Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations territory in Vancouver Island. The Los Angeles Times reports that he’s a veteran screen and stunt performer.
At 23, he turned his life around after 13 years of drinking, drugs, and violence. He worked on himself, and then helped other teens. He began acting after a chance encounter with an agent, and he has appeared in The X-Files, Smallville, and Supernatural.
“Before acting, I didn’t know hot to feel,” he said. “I didn’t know how to express myself.”