Review: Jessica Chastain's 'Woman Walks Ahead' is Well-Meaning But Bland, Another White Savior Among Natives Story
“The only battle I’ve ever fought is against insignificance,” says Jessica Chastain as Catherine Weldon, a New York City artist who in the late 19th century traveled alone to North Dakota, determined to paint a portrait of Chief Sitting Bull (Michael Greyeyes), despite resistance from the U.S. government and U.S. Army tasked with keeping tabs on Sitting Bull at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. She’s opinionated and outspoken, convinced that the “last great Sioux war chief” is deserving of a painting that would hang in a museum and remind people of the natives who once lived in this land that was stolen from them.
It’s a noble undertaking, and Woman Walks Ahead, the A24 film crafted by director Susanna White to tell this story, is a well-meaning one. But it’s also mostly bland, dramatically altering the truth to serve its narrative needs, erasing entire people and changing others’ motivations. The result is a film that frustratingly goes down the stereotypical route of opposites-attract love instead of really digging into the complicated politics of the time, shortchanging both Weldon and Sitting Bull in the process.
The film begins with narration from Weldon: “I studied portrait painting as a young woman, but when I was married, it was deemed unsuitable for me to pursue a profession,” she says, but when she saw the paintings of artist George Catlin, who captured Native Americans in their traditional lives, “my breath was taken away.” “It was the freedom that struck me,” Weldon adds, and so she was inspired to recreate some of that own feeling with a portrait of Sitting Bull. After her husband’s death, Weldon in 1890 boards a train from New York City to Fort Yates, North Dakota, informing the Standing Rock Agency — the arm of the U.S. government tasked with keeping the Native Americans at the reservation in line — of her intentions, which they mock. And the U.S. Army official she meets on the train, Col. Silas Grove (Sam Rockwell), approaches her with a mixture of wariness (“Not a soldier’s wife, and not a missionary. What other business could you possily have?” he asks) and warning. When she’s spit on later and called an “Indian-loving bitch,” Weldon is shocked, but Grove isn’t.
Weldon is entering hostile territory at a hostile time: The U.S. government is attempting to renegotiate an “allotment treaty” that would significantly decrease the amount of land held by the reservation, and is lessening rations for the reservation residents to get what they want. Sitting Bull, meanwhile, is attempting to unite and lead his people against the treaty, and when Weldon arrives, she is almost immediately accepted as an ally. She threatens to write letters to her Congress representatives. She buys food for the reservation. And she forges a friendship with Sitting Bull that, over time, seems to grow into something more affectionate and romantic than a pure artist-subject or even comrade-comrade relationship.
What that means for Woman Walks Ahead is a lot of conversations between Chastain’s and Greyeyes’s characters as they get to know, trust, and possibly love each other, and that dialogue is how the film imparts much of its information about what was going on at Standing Rock at the time. But the film fails in transmitting basic, specific facts about that very subject: Weldon warns that the U.S. government is trying to take away land, but what’s never said is exactly what the goal was, which was to split the Standing Rock reservation into numerous smaller pieces of land. Sitting Bull mentions that his people are going to “Ghost Dance” and Weldon watches them do so by firelight, but the intricacies of that political and religious movement — how the Native Americans thought it would bring the strength of their ancestors to them, and how thoroughly that terrified white colonists — isn’t really explored. The practice is used for some pretty scenes, but the movie doesn’t dive deeply into it. Instead, the main difference in ideology is that Sitting Bull has relied on a life of violence while Weldon thinks opposing the treaty through voting and other means will secure their freedom, and her objective is to push him toward her point of view, which is a kind of simplistic way to look at an issue that had so many different facets.
And that feels like yet another flaw of telling these stories from a white perspective, and of focusing on an easily digestible story — that Weldon and Sitting Bull romantically cared for each other, but couldn’t be together because of social pressures at the time — instead of what really happened. Because what really happened is more interesting, but not what Woman Walks Ahead explores: that Weldon wasn’t widowed, but divorced with a young son when she arrived at Standing Rock; that she wasn’t an individualized activist, but part of a larger movement that supported Native American rights; that she broke with Sitting Bull on the Ghost Dance practice, leading to a schism between them that resulted in her leaving the reservation; and that she and Sitting Bull died apart, Weldon in obscurity and Sitting Bull murdered.
That story is more contentious, and leads to more interesting questions: Did Weldon’s sympathy toward Native Americans extend only to when they were being subjugated, not to when they tried to fight back? Was her relationship with her son more important to her than her relationship with Sitting Bull? How did the organized effort to back Native American rights continue after her death? How Woman Walks Ahead silos Weldon off and separates her from her real-life details is a disservice both to her and to Sitting Bull, who is often portrayed as someone more interested in spending time with Weldon than in leading his own people. (And honestly, I’m not sure what Rockwell’s character is really supposed to be doing here. Midway through the film, his reasoning changes completely, and veers into “all lives matter” territory that seems totally out of place.)
Reworked character motivations aside, there are good things in Woman Walks Ahead: Greyeyes is fantastic as Sitting Bull, mixing a kind of bemusement with Weldon and a resigation that his people may not succeed into a performance that is weighty, winning, and sometimes quite funny. He challenges Weldon on her own stereotypes and misconceptions about the Sioux and Native Americans in general, and the film would have been better if it focused more on what drew them together. What did Sitting Bull trust about this woman? While living with Native Americans, how did her ideas about them change, and how did her presence affect their beliefs and cultural traditions? The Sitting Bull character is prone to making grand statements that are lyrical and meaningful (“Your society values people by how much you have; ours, by how much you give away”; of New York City, he says “Too many people with too much, too many people with nothing at all”), and a scene where he shares with Weldon painted vignettes of his own life is impressively intimate. Beautiful too is how cinematographer Mike Eley composes some scenes like the paintings Weldon would be creating, sweeping landscapes and beautiful sunsets and majestic figures on horseback; those images often give us more insight into Weldon’s perspective than Steven Knight’s script.
“I can’t be seen taking orders from you,” Sitting Bull says to Weldon, and I wish White, Knight, and everyone else involved in this film had taken that one step further by telling this story entirely from the chief’s point of view. Attempting to make Weldon a conduit into his world doesn’t entirely work, and the film’s reliance on a romantic relationship is particularly uninspired. Woman Walks Ahead has good intentions, but it’s a narrow, unsatisfying point of view (cough, Hostiles, cough) we’ve seen too many times before.