Actors, writers, producers, and directors are becoming more reflective of their audience to share interesting and new stories. As a result, many minority groups are being heard through television and film by introducing thought-provoking subject matter to viewers. This uptick in diversity has opened the door to African, Latin, Asian, and Indigenous-led stories that finally find visibility and acceptance with both studios and audiences.
The Indigenous has been long underrepresented in cinema history. Non-Indigenous actors or actresses often played early representations of Indigenous people on film in brownface. As a result, they negated the correct depiction of their culture. This negation went further whenever Indigenous actors and actresses were relegated as subordinate sidekicks, primitive savages, or background extras.
Fortunately, that didn’t stop the Indigenous people from becoming significant players in the filmmaking business.
Indigenous filmmakers like Bill Onus and Alanis Obomsawin paved the way for stories of this culture to be adequately represented in TV and film. The hard work of these artists has allowed others to create programs that are highly regarded to this day. Filmmakers like Chris Eyre, Zacharias Kunuk, Ivan Sen, and Taika Waititi have continued the tradition of sharing their Indigenous culture. Many more are making a name for themselves in the Hollywood Industry.
Sterlin Harjo is a filmmaker with three films and a successful show under his belt. Harjo, whose heritage is that of Muscogee, got his start in art and film by studying the subject at the University of Oklahoma. The artist’s directorial debut short film, Goodnight Irene, featured three characters interacting in an Indian Health Services waiting room. The topics of the story showcased the idea of Native existence and their generational difference. The director would go on to make his first feature, Four Sheets to the Wind (2007), which garnered high praise in the filmmaking community.
Hargo continued his journey and success in cinema by directing other features and a documentary that connected him with another Indigenous filmmaker, Taika Waititi. The two created the FX groundbreaking and multi-award-winning series, Reservation Dogs. It is the first show to feature all Indigenous writers and directors, along with an almost entirely Indigenous cast and production team.
The Cree-Métis director and screenwriter got her start in the early 2000s as a casting director coordinator and later the executive director of ImagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival in Toronto. From there, Danis Goulet directed several short films from 2006-2013, when she would finally make her first feature film, Night Raiders (2021). Goulet’s talent and movie created a new subgenre of Indigenous science fiction for the screen. The film premiered at 2021’s Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF).
The film and TV magazine, Playback has named Goulet the Director of the Year for 2021. The talented filmmaking is already working on her latest projects, and one will premiere on Netflix soon.
Alethea Arnaquq-Baril and Stacey Aglok MacDonald
Many people in the filmmaking world have dubbed these two as a “triple threat.” The Inuk duo’s talents involve writing, directing, producing several films, and creating their production company, Red Marrow Media. In addition, Aglok-MacDonald has written, directed, and produced the ongoing Inuktitut Canadian comedy series, Qanurli? (2011). Meanwhile, Arnaquq-Baril wrote, directed, and produced her project Angry Inuk (2016). The documentary’s topic circles seal hunting and have garnered acclaim from the filmmaking community.
The two have been hard at work developing their next feature film and were given the Netflix Apprenticeship and Cultural Mentorship program grant from the Indigenous Screen Office.
The director, producer, and writer has been a significant player in the Indigenous filmmaker since 1993. Perkins, a member of the Arrernte and Kalkadoon nations, has been at the forefront of the Australian filmmaking industry with TV and films like Blood Brothers (1993), Message Stick (1998), and One Night Moon (2001). Many in the filmmaking community have been influenced by Rachel Perkins’s production company Blackfella Films since its inception in 1992. Her TV shows and documentaries highlight injustice and systematic racism in Australia, creating new dialogues and educating audiences.
Sydney Freeland is a transgender Navajo director whose motivation in telling stories comes from the lack of Indigenous representation in film and media. She got her start by attending the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, with her studies focused on Indigenous people in Ecuador. Freeland earned a Master of Fine Arts in film and a Bachelor of Fine Arts in computer animation. Freeland’s experience as a production assistant, writer, and camera intern led her onto the path of directing her first feature film.
Her first feature film, Drunktown’s Finest (2014), showcases the story of three young Navajo characters—with different emotional baggage—and trying to escape the reservation. The story was inspired by a 20/20 segment on the town of Gallup, New Mexico, branded as “Drunk Town, USA,” and the director’s goal was to combat those negative stereotypes. Freeland went on to create an original feature for Netflix, Deidra & Laney Rob a Train and has worked on many projects for Walt Disney, National Geographic, and Comedy Central.
Kyle Bell’s journey into filmmaking is an interesting one. The Thlopthlocco Creek Tribal Town filmmaker began his studies in this craft early when the Dakota Access Pipeline protests occurred. Bell captured moments of the protest during his stay at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation and pieced together a short documentary. Defend the Scared, displayed many personal scenes during the NoDAPL demonstrations, earned him multiple awards, and helped Bell propel his filmmaking career.
Since then, the director, cinematographer, editor, and photographer has worked on the Emmy-winning television program Osiyo: Voices of the Cherokee People, which airs in Oklahoma and Arkansas. He continues to fine-tune his talent as a filmmaker and is a protégé of the legendary artist Spike Lee.
Born to Sámi rights activist and journalist Bjarne Store-Jakobsen and Kainai activist and doctor Esther, Tailfeathers found her calling in moviemaking after studying acting. After graduating from Vancouver Film School in 2006 and gaining a degree in First Nations studies at the University of British Columbia in 2011, she would go on to write and direct her first project, Bloodland (2011). The successful festival-run experimental short film offers a commentary on fracking practices and the harm they cause.
Tailfeathers would continue her filmmaking voyage by creating the short film A Red Girl’s Reasoning (2012), the unconventional documentary Rebel (Bihttoš) (2014), and her first feature film, Cəsnaʔəm, the city before the city (2017). The Blackfoot and Sámi filmmaker projects primarily focus on activism, social justice, and representations of women of color. Tailfeathers is also known to have her staff predominantly Indigenous cast and production members as well.
Warwick Thornton has profoundly impacted Indigenous filmmaking as a director, screenwriter, and cinematographer since 1998. The award-winning talent got his start in entertainment by working at the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association radio station before mastering his skills as a cinematographer at the Australian Film Television and Radio School. Thornton established his presence in filmmaking by creating several contemporary short films on Indigenous stories.
His feature debut film, Samson and Delilah, won the Caméra d’Or at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival as well as the Best Film award at the Asia Pacific Screen Awards the same year. In addition, his 2010-2014 series Art + Soul displayed an insider view of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art and artists that has a cultural significance to Australia. Thornton continues to showcase his talent as a cinematographer and director on several future projects.
Hollywood and audiences are finally embracing the multitude of stories that those in the Indigenous community can tell. These creative and talented people have accepted the current opportunities to advance awareness of their culture. They finally found a way to share their narratives with their unique voices. As a result, Indigenous showrunners, writers, and actors are now positioned to offer realistic depictions of their lives and experiences, and viewers are ready for it.