Roundtable: Indigenous directors discuss the “savages” in the Coens’ latest western

The caricatured Native American characters in Netflix's The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is part of the satire, but is that portrayal responsible?


Warning: This article contains plot spoilers for the film The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs

How the Coen Brothers handle Native American representation in The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs is, to put it mildly, not great.

The directing duo’s comic and critical anthology film about the Wild West is told from a very white perspective. First Nations people appear in two chapters, Near Algodones and The Gal Who Got Rattled. In the first, James Franco plays a criminal saved from a noose when a Comanche war party slaughters those who were about to hang him. The Gal Who Got Rattled is about settlers travelling by stagecoach along the Oregon Trail. In a key sequence, Alice (Zoe Kazan) is stranded alongside trail hand Mr. Arthur (Grainger Hines) as a Comanche war party stages an unsuccessful attack. Mr. Arthur shoots a few before they retreat, but Alice shoots herself for fear of being taken alive.

“They’re going to get killed for the Comanche stuff.”

That’s what Toronto film critic Adam Nayman uttered after seeing the film. He just published an atlas-sized book, The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties The Films Together (Harry N. Abrams), exploring the filmmakers’ work and world view, from Blood Simple to Hail, Caesar!, the 50s Hollywood-set comedy that stirred controversy for its lack of diversity. That’s why Nayman expects the Coens to be dragged for Buster Scruggs’s primarily white cast, save for Indigenous people depicted as savages.

“Maybe they should be,” Nayman says. “Or maybe the discussion should be had in a way that interrogates not just who made this particular movie, but who gets to make films in general, who films are for and what audience watches them.”

He was speaking during a NOW-convened roundtable of critics and filmmakers on Buster Scruggs and the past and current depiction of Indigenous lives. The participants also include Lisa Jackson, director of the VR project Biidaaban: First Light, and Tkaronto director Shane Belcourt.

Radheyan Simonpillai: Initial thoughts on Buster Scruggs?

Lisa Jackson: For what it is, it’s brilliant. I appreciated the Coen Brothers’ take on our particular moment seen through the lens of a caricatured Western past.

My bigger question has to do with which voices are actually out there, let alone at the level of the Coens. There are conversations to be had around the choice to give them a bit of a pass on using Indigenous people in a tongue-in-cheek way. We know that the caricature that they portrayed is very likely not how they feel about Indigenous people. It’s in keeping with the exaggeration of the whole movie. But there is a question of whether it’s responsible or not.

Shane Belcourt: It’s hard not to agree with that perspective. Look, my name is Shane. I’m named after a Western. My dad is Métis from Alberta and he named me after Alan Ladd’s character. We love Westerns: the cowboys and horses and the Wild West show stuff. At the same time, what’s missing from all Westerns is this sense that there were other people, another side to this story, and another side of humanity that’s not shown when you have a zombie attack of Indians coming over the horizon.

That stagecoach journey in The Gal Who Got Rattled is quite difficult for me. Of course, I’m cheering for Zoe Kazan’s Alice. I want her and the dog to survive. I want to see Mr. Arthur, the tough wrangling cowhand, save the day. Because that’s the way the story has always been told. Here come the Comanche over the horizon, and for whatever reasons, as I’m watching it, I’m cheering for the “good guys” to win. This is the way the chorus goes.

It’s a difficult thing to view a film when you have a different lens. You say, “Well hold on a second, I know those people on the other side and they’re not presented as people. They don’t matter. They’re the zombies who get killed because that’s what we need at this moment.”

Then I try to turn off that lens and go, “Okay, what time do we live in now?” The Coens always walk away as fast as they can from any [suggestions that] “this is a statement on the issues of the day and Trump.” But it’s hard not to watch it and think this is more about “Make America Great” white society trying to deal with themselves or trying to get a sense of society’s ills that haven’t been corrected.

I found it enjoyable as a movie and then tough afterwards to think about.

Adam Nayman: It’s very much about two questions of perspective or seeing. There’s one within the film itself, which I think is very consistent, rigorous and logical. Both in the Near Algodones episode and The Gal Who Got Rattled, the Comanche are seen from the point of view of white characters, with the shots angled from those characters’ point of view.

There’s no possibility within how it’s written, dramatized and told for [the Indigenous people] to be larger characters. But within the idea that this is being told within the Western frame – a kind of Wild West tall tale – and even within the way it’s made technically in terms of point of view shots, it all makes sense.

The punch line to The Gal Who Got Rattled is very much about xenophobia and racism, which is the reason she takes her life. She’s been fed this idea by the old trail hand that the Comanches won’t just kill her. They’ll do something worse.

That’s rhetoric right out of John Ford’s The Searchers. Here you have that violence turned inwards. The title gets it in The Gal Who Got Rattled. What she’s rattled by is not just the vague threat of death but that it’s going to be worse. I see a lot in there about an America that is so ruled by paranoid fantasies of “the other” that it leads to self-destruction.

It’s very telling that all the violence is Mr. Arthur killing the Comanches, with the exception of the one guy who hits him on the head. The only violence that gets done to either him or Alice is her killing herself out of fear and panic. I don’t think that offsets or redeems or fully re-contextualizes everything about the representational politics in this scene. But it does make it interesting. It suggests that there is a level of thought beyond the passive deployment of these tropes. Again, I don’t think that that ends the larger conversation.

As for the larger question we’re all talking about in terms of point of view: the Coens get to make a movie about the Wild West the Coens get to make a movie about the foundational mix of America completely from the point of view of white characters and their manifest destiny. I don’t think the film is triumphant. I don’t think the film is positive. I think the film is deeply critical and dubious about those values as a way, at least to start off the top, to comment about now. But it still doesn’t register as a complete portrait. And it does connect somewhat uncomfortably to the question of diversity and race in their films as a whole.

SB: They know how to position every element of the storytelling with the cameras, performances and script, where it’s hard not to just get sucked in and go along for the ride. The episode with Tom Waits, All Gold Canyon, is a beautiful piece about the land. When we talk about relationships, we talk about human-to-human relationships. But one of the main pieces to the Indigenous worldview is that our relationships aren’t just human-to-human. Our relationships extend beyond that to the nation of trees. The nation of the buffalo is a relation of ours, so we have to honour and be respectful.

Scruggs 2

Netflix

Tom Waits in Netflix’s The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

I watched that episode with that frame of mind. Here’s a beautiful place where everything is living in harmony and awareness with each other. In comes the settler, or you could say the un-settler, digging up the landscape for gold and all this violence happens. The shenanigans happen because of this rock that we arbitrarily give value. And then he walks off.

It’s moments like that where I think, “Man, the Coens know.” They get it. They’re very thoughtful and considerate about what it is they’re doing. And of course, there’s Lisa’s point that they weren’t thoughtful about the other part.

LJ: What’s hard is these stories take up the majority of the space. They get on the most screens. They’re the ones we’re most familiar with. So we don’t watch and think, “That’s a white male perspective.” We say, “That’s an American perspective.” That’s what we’re unconsciously adopting.

The whole system is set up to give more opportunities to certain folks and that leads to a place where bias persists, often unconsciously. It is amazing to me that these voices aren’t questioned as being from a particular frame.

Is there responsibility inherent in that? That’s a whole other question. Is this just art and a person can do what they want? – which of course as an artist is super attractive. Or is there inherent responsibility, especially when you’re treading into political commentary, as the Coens do? That conversation has come up around representation in the arts in Canada recently and pretty egregiously around Robert LePage. There’s that question whether art bears any responsibility or if [responsibility] taints artistic integrity.

AN: We can get a group of smart and film-watching people together and talk all we want about form and technique – and that’s what I’m doing because I work as a critic – but the larger point is that this kind of story is told over and over again to the point that these archetypes become defaults and acceptable. And I’m not sure the Coens do a helluva lot to undermine that, whether they think it’s their job or not.

As much as I love their films, their history with this stuff is really complicated and problematic. When you say that they have a white male point of view, I don’t disagree. I think they do almost to the point where it has gotten them in trouble before. In the climate that they were making certain movies in, people were not as attuned to those concerns.

The way that they addressed the whiteness of the Hail, Caesar! cast did not go over well. Nor do I think it should have gone over well. They treated that in a flip way, even if they were just being honest.

RS: In terms of the treatment of Indigenous people, compare Buster Scruggs to supposedly well-intentioned films like Taylor Sheridan’s Wind River – the top hit when you search “Native American” or “American Indian” on Netflix. Compare the Coens’ critical focus on a white perspective to Taylor Sheridan’s pandering to “wokeness” without actually being woke. Which is the lesser of two evils?

SB: Can there be a door number three where – I know this is the dream of dreams – you’re making companion pieces allowing space for other voices? So if Netflix allows a Wild West tale from the perspective of the Coens, then that’s totally valid. Let’s get someone like American filmmaker Sterlin Harjo to have a shot to make a Wild West tale from an Indigenous perspective, to think about how the land was cleared.

How do you get that perspective into the audience as they watch that scene? People were systematically murdered and destroyed? How do you get that? I don’t think we’re going get that by debating the good or bad intentions of white male filmmakers. Let’s get to the third way. Ya’ll just do what you do. Can we do our own thing? That would be the better version of these choices.

LJ: I wish it wasn’t the case, but I suspect many people who view this film will not know the piece of history that Shane pointed out, and it’s a crucial one. So we go, “Can we get some Indigenous people to do their version of a Western?” The fact that that is so difficult yet there is an endless hunger for another white perspective Western is just so indicative.

AN: I agree. It’s not an issue we’re going to solve by just talking about it. But it’s one that people should be nudged and needled and bugged and pushed for. If criticizing or raising the problematics of something like Ballad Of Buster Scruggs helps that discussion happen, then it is totally worthwhile.

To answer your first question about Taylor Sheridan, I think his work is repulsive. The way Wind River inscribes helplessness and needing to be saved on Indigenous characters is super gross, and I know many people who feel the same way. The same way he always has characters of colour die in his movies to redeem his white heroes, or give them something to feel bad about, is despicable.

While watching Buster Scruggs I thought immediately of Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff, which is about the Oregon trail and also features Zoe Kazan. Reichardt uses the Native American character [Rod Rondeaux] as this cryptic, mysterious unknowable figure who is kind of a saviour, and who the Michelle Williams character decides they should follow. He is victimized by the Bruce Greenwood character to show that the latter is bad and racist. He’s supported by the Michelle Williams character to show that the she is good and noble.

I really like Meek’s Cutoff. It revises the Western in feminist ways that are interesting. I know Reichardt and she’s as left wing and progressive as they come. I am not sure, in the end, I necessarily prefer what she’s doing to the unapologetic exaggeration of the Coens. The Coens are respecting an audience’s genre knowledge or not trying to pander and that’s very, very different from what Reichardt’s doing.

LJ: That example is interesting. I wrote an editorial for The Globe And Mail about my concern around the hunger in Canada for more Indigenous stories and also historical filmmaking that is so removed we can project qualities onto characters. There’s a tendency, especially when it comes to films with historical distance, to oversimplify any Indigenous or “other” characters. They are stoic, infantile, victimized or simplistic characters that don’t have agency and serve as a foil to reflect back to white characters. I actually think that those [films] are more insidious.

In the realm that Shane and I work in, we’re constantly being pitched stories. It is incredible how many of those pitches are from incredibly well-meaning white producers who think the story they’re proposing is an answer when it’s very clear that it’s perpetuating the victim narrative.

Funders love those stories because there’s a mea culpa embedded within them that’s not very deep. There’s a twin satisfaction of feeling superior to the villain, who can be white, and also feeling like a saviour to the poor Indigenous people who you know you would have helped back then.

It doesn’t reflect any complexity about the human condition. It actually creates this black-and-white narrative. They feel like, “I’m a white saviour. I would never have done those things. And those poor Native people. That’s my contribution to reconciliation.”

AN: One group we haven’t brought up that is homogenous and white is film critics. That’s maybe one of the reasons why people are more comfortable deconstructing Buster Scruggs in terms of Western tropes than actually talking about the history that it occludes or gets rid of.

[The Coens] have had Black characters in their films over the years but never in lead roles. They’ve had really broadly racialized comedy like the Mike Yanagita character in Fargo or the Korean father and son in A Serious Man. As a critic, I can create rationalizations for all these things, because in the context of each film they work. But they do add up to something that is a bit of a perplexing and troubling question.

When you have filmmakers this brilliant, influential and taking up this much oxygen in the discussion – and I know because I just wrote a 90,000-word book on them – how much of this stuff is given a pass because it could be intellectually rationalized? And who are the people rationalizing it? It’s mostly white critics.

Edge of the Knife

Tyler York in Edge Of The Knife.

RS: I want to bring up Helen-Haig-Brown and Gwaai Edenshaw’s Edge Of The Knife, the period piece set in the Haida Gwaii community, which feels like a recent counterpoint to Buster Scruggs. Edge Of The Knife also rides a fine line between the literal and mythological.

SB: What I love about Edge Of The Knife the most is that it has nothing to do with you – you being the dominant, colonizing society. You’re not in the movie. No white cast! No gold! No saviour! No evil doer! Nothing!

We are in our own community. In a period piece, we’re going to go into our own journey as human beings without you. That other stuff hovers around the story, but it’s not the thing that people are dealing with. They’re dealing with their own lives, relationships and humanity within their own world view. That’s what makes it so profound and exciting.

Edge Of The Knife had another important and valuable agenda, which is to have language restoration as part of the filmmaking process. They brought the community together and helped actors who are English-speakers learn the lines in their language. What you’re experiencing is new because it is within its own community. You get to participate and that is what it’s like for so many people of colour to watch white movies.

Then there’s the stoic thing, and those limited characterizations of an Indigenous person who has to be spiritually this way or that way. What if you have ups and downs? Are you supposed to feel like a victim? No, you have ups and downs because you’re a human being. That’s what was so profound and beautiful about Edge Of The Knife.

Another relationship between Edge Of The Knife and Buster Scruggs is they’re both about the spirit of greed. That’s what’s consuming the lead character in Edge Of The Knife, but they deal with it head on. This desire to consume only for yourself is the problem that must be vanquished. In Buster Scruggs it’s just like, “Those are our origins.”

What’s so great about these films they bring an Indigenous world view forward, not for reconciliation but for the enhancement of our nation or our communities. How do we see ourselves in relationship with the living universe? That is a key element of all Indigenous teaching.

LJ: A thing that gets on my nerves – maybe it’s a personal view – is how Albert Camus was referenced more than once in relation to the Coen Brothers this cynicism, this philosophy of “what’s the point?,” this existential “throw up your hands because humans are terrible.” Buster Scruggs is an incredibly skilful film that’s more or less saying, “Eh, humanity sucks.”

That’s a legitimate point of view, but to follow on what Shane is saying: as Indigenous people, community does matter and relationships to the living world do matter. The answers that I saw in some small way put forward in the gold-digging piece of Buster Scruggs – “Oh, isn’t nature wondrous before man comes and ruins it all” – there’s a different vision of that.

Not only was Edge Of The Knife made in a very communal way, the story within it has someone who goes off the rails and becomes monstrous. And what happens? The community comes together and pulls him back into the fold. They don’t send him out to perish. That was an allegory for [the Haida] people today, just as Buster Scruggs is one for modern-day America.

These stories and value systems are useful perspective to have in our concerning times. Community-based living, a sense of humility and care-taking for the rest of the world might be something we all want to reach out to do.

@JustSayRad

Leave your opinion for the editor...We read everything!

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *