“The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted.”
*Spoilers for “Hostiles” ahead*
The above quote by D.H. Lawrence opened Scott Cooper’s Hostiles. The dark neo-western stars Christian Bale as Captain Joseph J. Blocker, a white American soldier with a gory reputation of capturing, torturing, and killing Native Americans on the 19th Century frontier. One day, he’s given the task of escorting his aging nemesis, Cheyenne Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi), and his family back to their homeland in the Valley of the Bears, Montana. En route, they encounter Rosalee (Rosamund Pike), who within the first few minutes of the film has watched her husband, two little girls, and infant child slaughtered by Comanche raiders and her home burned to the ground. Together, the group roams up the American West, battling trappers and the elements, losing many friends and allies in the process. By the time they arrive at their destination, Blocker and Yellow Hawk have seen another side of one another. Blocker has realized the tremendous loss Yellow Hawk and his people have experienced and empathizes with him, while Blocker gains Yellow Hawk’s respect.
When I first saw a trailer for this film, I was ambivalent. My roommate and I joked that it could either be really good — respectful, thought-provoking, and woke — or really bad — super racist. I decided to give it a shot when a family friend sent me an article in Indian Country Today, wherein First Nations citizens praised Cooper for his respect and reverence toward the Native characters and cultures. After a particularly rough past couple of days, I went to the movies to escape into the old west.
I was disastrously unsuccessful.
Writing about this film is difficult — I encourage everyone to go see it for themselves, even if you don’t normally like westerns. This is a western only on the surface. Beneath is a harsh reality that could not be more true today. I want to say I was upset with the fact that Christian Bale was a white man “saving” a group of Natives, or that I was upset with the “both sides” theme, but I wasn’t. Yes, the film posited that brutal atrocities were committed by both settlers and Natives, but it did not stop there. The white soldiers were put through it. The loss we watched them experience on screen was visceral. At first, I tried desperately to justify it, to say that American settlers did not have to go west, that they did not have to exterminate an entire population. We could have coexisted. We could have integrated. But the white soldiers who survived grappled with these questions just as much as I did. They were riddled with PTSD, which was difficult to watch at times. They often wondered what they were doing and why they were doing it. And by the end, if they were still alive, we saw many of them realize that they had done something evil. They did what they had to in order to survive, and that was something I, too, could understand. And it was impossible not to see that without their Native comrades, these soldiers would have been dead within the film’s first half hour.
The one line that stuck out to me the most was uttered toward the middle of the film. A guilt-stricken soldier had just told Blocker that he had to be released from duty and that he could no longer live with himself. Then he approached Chief Yellow Hawk’s tent and woke him up. He gave Yellow Hawk tobacco — a peace pipe. Then in the chief’s native Cheyenne language, the soldier said, “What was done to the Natives cannot be forgiven. Have mercy on us.”
“Have mercy on us.”
In light of #BlackLivesMatter, #NoDAPL, and the #MeToo movement, I have found myself reacting with anger. In recent months, that anger has become disturbing to me. I find it more and more difficult to stay calm in the face of oppression and hate. And yet, this simple line, spoken by an actor to another actor, a white man to a Native man with tears in his eyes, made me realize how important it is for both sides to have mercy.
This is one of my favorite photos. It shows a black woman standing with unwavering feminine strength as two heavily armed police officers in riot gear accost her. She’s looking straight ahead, and her expression is one of unflinching stoicism. To me, represents the divine power of femininity, the dignity of standing your ground, and the power of mercy — not only for what we see in the photo itself, but for the story behind it.
Demonstrators in Baton Rouge were blocking a highway in front of a police station. Police came out in riot gear to clear the road. They arrested a few people and everyone began to scatter, but one woman stayed put. The photographer saw the picture as it was happening — the dress, the riot gear, and the racial implications behind it. But her arrest was not violent at all. She did not protest or resist, and the police were not forceful or aggressive. The woman was, in fairness, breaking the law by blocking the highway. But she was making a statement, standing up against the unforgivable treatment of black people at the hands of the police in America. Despite the strong, vehement feelings on both sides, all parties involved showed mercy. In my eyes, this does not take away from the power of the photo; on the contrary, it adds to it.
Now, let me be clear…I’m not advocating any type of kumbaya bullshit. Protests are necessary, as are those hard discussions that may very well turn into arguments. Oppressed groups should not be expected to be all-forgiving, and expressing the anger that we have harbored for so long is crucial to the healing process.
But that’s just it — this is a healing process. And healing from this level of injustice requires a little bit of mercy.
I have experienced casual racism from some of my closest friends. Someone I considered a mentor at a job once told me that if I came into the office with natural hair again, I would be sent home. And I have been brutishly sexually assaulted on multiple occasions. I’m more than angry — I’m enraged. I want those who have hurt me to experience equal or greater hurt. It seems only fair. But thinking like this accomplishes nothing other than contributing more to my own pain, anxiety, and self loathing. I still do not believe I have to forgive all these acts, but I do need to learn to show mercy.
Because mercy and forgiveness are two very different beasts.
The latter requires someone to conquer their feelings of anger. Mercy, however, is the restraint from inflicting harsh treatment — treatment that you have a moral right to inflict.
Again, I hope everyone who reads this goes to see Hostiles. It is a fantastic addition to the resurgence of the western (with a similar tone to 3:10 to Yuma and Unforgiven) as well as what seems to be emerging as a new bout of films that shed light on and respect Native peoples (Wind River.) The performances are first-class across the board, but it would be unfair not to note Wes Studi’s tour de force portrayal of Chief Yellow Hawk. With a character that could have been a cookie cutter “stoic Native,” the gravitas he brought to it was nothing less than awe-inspiring. The film may not be everyone’s cup of tea, and the film does struggle with legitimate pacing problems. But the ideas and themes pay off tremendously, with a bit of active viewing, and a little bit of mercy.