Indigenous communities in Hollywood films have always had marginalized roles and appearances, especially in those films dealing with Western and imperialist historical topics. James Grey’s The Lost City of Z (pronounced “Zed”) however, might be the first I’ve seen which makes a conscientious effort to reverse this Hollywood treatment. To, in fact, make it a point to say native peoples are actively marginalized throughout imperialist histories, and it’s main protagonist, Colonel Percy Fawcett, as a beholder to their intellect and power.
The main obstacle to Fawcett (played by Charlie Hunnam) was not to convince England he had discovered a lost tribe, but that it was, in fact, a civilization, one replete with the advancements of cookware, art, weaponry, and buildings that constituted a people of intellect and scientific and engineering knowhow. In a boisterous and argumentative session before the Royal Geographic Society, he makes his case to the horror of many of the “intellectuals” who’s fear of a non-white race achieving civility and discipline shattered their world view.
Fawcett’s adamant stance on the intelligence and advancement of native cultures is an important counter to our biased views of Western civilization. Despite a more politically correct polish on what used to be incredibly racist stereotypes of the civilized white towards the native barbarian, we still don’t acknowledge in textbooks or discussion of colonization how much more advanced Natives actually were in regards to their understanding of natural and environmental science and food cultivation than any settlers were.
Previous treatments of native cultures contained them as entities having to be “saved” by a Western hero (Dances with Wolves). It was a veil of digestibility for our sake and a continuation of the lies that native cultures never really had an “order” before the Conquistadors or Pilgrims came to settle and command. That there were no rules or governance and thus, the land was essentially for the taking and the people free to be “educated”.
In contrast to such restrictive Hollywood tropes, James Grey’s The Lost City of Z might be considered unique in its “progressive histrionics”. There are conversations regarding women’s roles in society and home, white and non-white race relations, the erasure of cultures, and the validity of scientific findings. The film has quite a clear argument in favor of progressive views of the world, even if its setting is in the old world where such thoughts were considered preposterous or worse, treasonous.
Take these views into consideration with Roland Joffé’s The Mission, a critically acclaimed historical epic which uses a very traditional Hollywood construct of native people as a group looking to be conquered or brought to salvation… or both. Joffé’s film also creates a good vs evil dichotomy, wherein its progressive politics are poised as a fight between the peaceful salvation of the Jesuit order and the ruthless slavery-driven economy of imperialist Portugal. There is even a character, Rodrigo Mendoza (a miscast but adequate Robert DeNiro), who spent time on both sides of this fence; a former mercenary and slave trader who corrects his ways and finds God with the help of Father Gabriel (the impeccable Jeremy Irons).
Much like Fawcett’s character, Father Gabriel and Mendoza fight for the dignity and independence of the indigenous Amazonian tribe they befriend, the Guarani. Unlike Fawcett however, their attempts at protection of the tribe, i.e., “conversions” via their mission, is on its head a form of cultural erasure… the elimination of the Guarani’s spiritual and traditional beliefs in favor of the Holy Spirit.
The Mission is much more politically volatile than The Lost City of Z and thus, much more exciting and entertaining, but also much more unforgiving. But what makes one a tale While Grey maintains his central characters in such a steady and unbending light for “good”, for the true understanding of native peoples in the fact of evil imperialism, Joffé’s story is more about the inevitable genocide of the native, caught between enslavement via the Monarchy or coerced abandonment of their century-old cultural beliefs.