A Ridiculously Long Movie Review: Unbowed (1999)

Unbowed (1999) tells the story of three Lakota Sioux men who are captured and brought to a fictional co-ed black college called Betsworth, set “some time after the Civil War.” This movie boasts familiar black faces such as Tembi Locke, who I know from the 90s scifi tv show Sliders, Michelle Thomas, aka Myra from Family Matters, and Ron Glass of The Cosby Show and Firefly fame. They were my initial entry point into this story.

I fell down a YouTube rabbit hole and came across this movie. The first viewing consisted of watching bits and pieces of it, as I skipped around, rewound, and fast-forwarded. Why? The uploaded quality is not great. The sound is meh for most of it and the color of the film gives it a 1970s color palette to me. Coupled with the exaggerated accents of certain characters (see Thomas), it felt very hokey and not in a good way. I thought it would be like every other movie I stumble upon on YouTube. Interested for a minute before quickly forgetting about it. However, this one stayed with me.

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So here’s a lengthy synopsis:

The story takes place during summer break at the college to which there are only a handful of students present, specifically six students (4 men; 2 women). One day a white US Army officer (Edward Albert) arrives with three Lakota Sioux men: Waka Mani (Jay Tavare), Simon Crow (Vincent McLean), and Jumping Elk (Mark Abbott). They were captured in Twin Forks (wherever that is) in which they attacked some soldiers. Rather than be hanged for their crimes, the officer persuades President Duquesne (Ron Glass) of the college to take them in and educate them, in order to prove that Indigenous people can be civilized. The officer adds that the three men in question have previously been educated by missionaries, thereby explaining how they understand and speak English. Their arrival brings tension between the students and the Lakota men.

What makes this movie compelling is the underlying tension between these minority groups (black and Indigenous) and the looming nature and impact of colonialism and white supremacy. Within that frame, you see Cleola (Tembi Locke) and Waka Mani positioned as love interests but it is a love story that doesn’t take center stage until midway through the movie.

I should add that this was female driven production. Nanci Rossov served as director and producer. I did a little digging and this movie was one of two movies she did as a director. The other is a 2012 movie called Redemption. Based on her LinkedIn page, she is still very much involved in directing as she is a Directing Faculty member at the Weengushk Film Institute and an Acting/Directing Coach. The screenwriter, Mildred Lewis, was executive producer for Harold & Maude, a movie I have yet to see but it’s on my Netlfix quene.

Let’s dive in shall we. My review pulls out themes that I picked up on as well as the things that irked me about the movie.

White Supremacy

The best moments, I think, took place between Waka Mani and Richard (Chuma Gault) & Waka Mani and Cleola. Waka Mani consistently points out the problems of white supremacy which he critiques through his usage of “the white man” or “white people.” He rightfully criticizes Richard and Cleola’s adherence to “the white man’s ways” given, historically, what white people have done to and spoken about black people. This is most evident in the confrontation with Richard who is initially Waka Mani’s teacher. They spar about the white man’s ways and how Richard, in pushing Waka Mani to learn these ways and Christianity in order to become civilized, is no different than a white man doing it. Their confrontation ultimately becomes physical. It ends with Richard being dismissed by Duquesne as Waka Mani’s teacher.

He is replaced by Cleola who is the only other qualified student to teach and Richard’s fiance. Here is when the Cleola and Waka Mani’s relationship begins to develop. However, their confrontation takes on a different tone. What brings the confrontation to a head is, in helping to build the anniversary stage, Waka Mani uses the n-word in retaliation to being called a savage by Junius (Catero Colbert), a black male student who despises Indigenous people. It is later that Cleola confronts him. She gives him such a dressing down that he is shameful and apologizes but this doesn’t end it. I found it interesting how education was a point of divergence for the two characters that mirror these different experiences of black and Indigenous people. Waka Mani positions education, specifically the white man’s education, as highly problematic. It is a tool and weapon of colonization. This instantly called to mind the Carlisle Indian School. I shuddered. Cleola counters with how education is a source of liberation for black people, who during slavery were denied it by white people. There is no clear resolution. Fam, whew. That was a lot to tackle in what translated into a 3-5 minute scene.

Funny how even though white people are barely a blip in the movie their presence, their history, their colonization, looms so fucking large.

The Romance Angle

Building on the previous section, I appreciated that Cleola was an established character before the romance angle kicked in. We know that she is engaged to Richard but ambivalent about it, due in part she does not love him. Also, he brings financial security whereas she lives on a “trust fund.” She is a top student at Betsworth but already experiencing the patriarchal call to be a wife and mother. This is established in the fact her final classes in the fall will not be political science and other academic subjects but sewing. Her desire to do something more, to have employment, is looked at with subtle bemusement by those closest to her. Couple that with having to lie about her “trust fund,” she has a lot going on.

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When Waka Mani is introduced, there is an unmistakable attraction. This is evident in several encounters: outside on the school grounds, the staircase, the library, the classroom. It is when she becomes Waka Mani’s teacher after Richard’s dismissal that their attraction truly builds. He finds within her not just a romantic interest but an ally. In their first lesson, he refuses to learn what she teaches him because it is not useful to his people’s survival or understanding of the white man. Cleola accepts the challenge and begins to teach him things that may help him. For example, she used math to help him determine how many rifles needed to kill a squadron of soldiers or reading the Constitution to know the basis for which the U.S. is governed. All of these are topics and approaches that Cleola, as a “respectable black woman” in the 19th century should not be doing but she does them anyway.

What further bonds the two together is Cleola’s grief at the lost of her mother and the weight of carrying that secret. Waka Mani is the first one to learn that Cleola is not really an orphan. Her mother, a former enslaved woman, is toiling away at a nearby boardinghouse to support her daughter. The money being sent to the school as part of her “trust fund.” To Cleola’s surprise, she learns of her mother’s passing after the fact. Through montages we see her move through this grief and Waka Mani’s concern grow. He wants to comfort her but a.) there is the issue of her fiance and b.) it exposes her secret. It’s only when she comes to him does their relationship pivot. What I loved about that scene in particular is that she had the space to openly express her grief and cry. He shares his blanket and sits with her in grief.

It was this whole romantic arc that made me take to Twitter to ask about the female gaze. The male gaze is the hypersexualization of women in movies and I wondered what made the female gaze different. I do not think the director overly sexualized Waka Mani but it was hard to ignore Tavare’s build and his muscles. Part of my discomfort came from how the relationship was built up. There was tenderness and compassion. It felt intrusive to watch this couple’s most intimate moments esp their love-making scene. Granted I did think it was absurd that this occurred on top of a rooftop. Like, people can see you!

Points of Connection

Outside of Cleola and Waka Mani, there are some through lines of connection between the black students and the Lakota Sioux men. The most substantive example is Simon Crow and Lewis (Rugg Williams). While other students such as Junius show contempt for the men, Lewis is genuinely curious and expresses a desire to know more about them. He and Crow, although in the background for the majority of the time, have moments where they bond and learn from the other. It is Lewis who argues against Junius’ prejudicial attitude toward them.

Lewis is also the catalyst for the one scene where the black students finally express interest in knowing more about the men. While Lewis sings “Wade in the Water,” Waka Mani joins in singing a complementary sounding song in Lakota that goes along with the music. From there, Crow and Jumping Elk join in adding sounds and texture to the music. All of these voices blending beautifully together. At the conclusion, the students and the staff marvel and clap. It is then Anna (Michelle Thomas), hesitantly, broaches the question of where they are from and what home is like. The moment is all too brief before tensions flare up again.

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By the time the movie begins to wind down, there is an unspoken respect  among both parties especially when Crow dies from a bout of pneumonia. In that scene, Waka Mani bemoans not having access to the medicine of his people. He tries to persuade Duquesne to get the doctor from town. Grimly, Duquesne replies that the doctor (presumably white) won’t “come to a colored school.” That statement and the look between the two men crystalize that feeling of helplessness and frustration with racism. Furthermore, Duquesne chastises Junius, Isaac (Aaron Knight), and Richard for laughing outside of Crow’s bedroom door, lacking decorum at such a solemn moment.

Colorism and Passing

This is an area that I wish that the screenwriter, Mildred Lewis, had delved more into. I don’t know Lewis background or race, as an Internet search yielded no information. The one Lewis I did find, who was a black woman, didn’t necessarily match up to the scant information I found of Lewis, the movie’s screenwriter.

I say this because these two topics come up briefly but not dug into. The Army officer, who was referenced earlier who is played by white actor Edward Albert, reveals to Duquesne that he is a white-passing Indigenous person. He even uses this term “passing” to indicate how he shook off the culture of his ancestors in order to move through white society. We learn that because of this choice, his son attends Harvard. But we are supposed to empathize with him because he low key gives money to Betsworth, to which Duquesne points out that he is in a financial position to give more to the failing college but chooses not to. At the same time, the officer, in passing as white, adopts the problematic, harmful rhetoric of the white man that “civilizing the savage” is the key. Honestly, fuck that noise. On some level, I get it within the context of that time but harm is harm.

Another topic that went unexplored was the latent colorism vis-a-vis social class among the black students. It was Cleola’s mother, a dark-skinned formerly enslaved woman, that made me aware of this. To the students and the president of the college, Cleola is an orphan who has a trust fund. It gives the impression that she comes from money. What we discover is that her mother is very much alive and working in a boarding house and that it is her hard work and saving that is making Cleola’s future possible. In the one scene with her mother, her mother is excited to hear that Cleola is engaged to Richard, a well to do, light-skinned man from an affluent family. Cleola wants so much to tell her fiance about her mother to which her mother severely scolds her noting “they wouldn’t want to see a dark-skinned woman like me in the family.” She directs her daughter to wait until after they are wed to tell the truth.

The only scene between Cleola and her mother.

The only scene between Cleola and her mother.

It is then I realize, in this small cast of characters, that the ones with privilege and wealth are those of a lighter hue. It’s laced in the conversation and speech of Richard, Junius, and Anna. Given that the movie is only a few decades out from the Civil War, I began to wonder about their families. Were they free blacks? Perhaps even some white-passing family members? So much left unexplored.

My nitpicks

Time frame

Honestly, I don’t know when this movie was set, hence the “some time after the Civil War” quotation marks at the beginning of this review. Based on what I picked up in the dialogue, I would surmise that this is set sometime between the mid-1880s-1890s. I based this on the fact that Booker T. Washington and Ida B. Wells were mentioned.

I questioned this, however, because I was unable to get a clear sense of characters’ ages. For example, Junius spoke of the reasons for his hatred of Indigenous people. In a short monologue, he spoke of serving in the U.S. Calvary, growing up in “Oklahoma...Indian Territory” and related quite vividly about Indigenous people owning slaves and his grandfather being killed two days after the end of the war by an Indigenous man. There was a lot to unpack here. That is further compounded by the fact the actor looks like he is in his 20s. Also, I was unsure if Oklahoma was called Oklahoma considering it officially became a state in 1907.

Location

The college is set in Ohio. However, the men were captured in Twin Forks. I have no idea where that is but presumably it was three days walk from the college and involved crossing mountains.

The few white people

The few white people we encounter, specifically the Army men, show politeness and deference to the President of the college and the students. I….did not believe this for a minute. Whatever the time frame, we were not far out from the Civil War which *checks notes* was fought over slavery. Note to white creatives, white people in history didn’t treat black people, hell any people of color, universally as the same or equal to them. Nope. Never. Not a one.

Final thoughts:

I recognize that this review is written from the viewpoint of a hetero black woman. As such, I tried to refrain from projecting authority or knowledge of Lakota Sioux people and customs. It would be interesting to hear what a Lakota Sioux person thinks of this movie, watching it in 2019. I do know that Tavare won an award for his acting in the American Indian Film Festival in 1999.

If you can get past the video quality, I suggest you check out Unbowed on YouTube.