How the Predator franchise is breaking new ground for Native Americans on screen | Horror films
OWould you be surprised to learn that Native Americans used toothbrushes? Or would you be more surprised to learn that from a Predator movie? At the same time as it offers us the usual invisible butchery inflicted by extraterrestrials, Prey, the fifth and last opus of the franchise, delivers its first lesson in history.
This loose, primitivist reimagining takes place in 1719, when a band of Comanche find themselves becoming the quarry of one of the intergalactic trophy hunters who arrived centuries too early to stumble upon Arnold Schwarzenegger. Filled with authentic period details (such as Native oral hygiene), this is likely the first big-budget Native American movie since 1992’s Last of the Mohicans.
Representation is the kind of woke buzzword that would have had Arnie and his meathead brigade reaching for their grenade launchers in the ’80s. And Prey doubles down on making his hero a woman. Amber Midthunder, a 25-year-old Assiniboine Sioux actress who plays the title character Naru, says she’s been selective in the past when it comes to Indigenous roles. “A different level of care goes into their choice because often the representation isn’t the best, especially for people who are so underrepresented.” But, spaceships aside, she says Prey felt different. “For a period piece, it showed so much more cultural precision, instead of reducing us to something one-dimensional, like this hyper-spiritual side or something too violent.”
The fact that this film produced in Hollywood does not fall into any cultural trap is due to its Comanche producer, Jhane Myers. She was hired by the director, Dan Trachtenberg, to make sure this frontier sci-fi stays grounded in Native American reality. With her resume – Comanche and Blackfoot defender, traditional artist and craftsman, and world champion buckskin dancer – she reminded him of the movie’s resourceful protagonist. “He said talking to me was like talking to adult Naru,” Myers explains.
The type of cultural advisory work she had done previously on The Lone Ranger and Wind River may be limited in scope, she says. “A director can have something written, and that’s how it’s going to be, whether it’s true or not. You can voice that, but that doesn’t always mean it’s going to happen. Having producer status full-fledged on Prey was a major step, she says. “If somebody’s a consultant, they’re not working there full-time — maybe they’re on the phone or whatever. But when you’re there in person and on the pitch, it makes a big difference.
Myers compiled a voluminous handbook of Comanche customs that Prey’s various production departments could refer to: everything from the earth pigments used to make the tribe’s black, red and white colors, to how they dried the meat. The plot of a young woman who wants to break custom and become a warrior sounds like a modern concoction. But in fact, Myers points out, there are many precedents in Native American history, including Buffalo Calf Road Woman, who reportedly killed General Custer, and the Apache warrior Lozen. To match those illustrious predecessors, Midthunder, along with the rest of the cast, attended the Native American version of the now traditional Hollywood bootcamp, learning archery, tomahawk and spear fighting.
Working alongside Juanita Pahdopony, another Comanche educator, Myers’ influence helped reshape the storyline from within. Naru was originally called Kee, which means “no” in the tribe’s language. But Myers felt she should be named for what she did; in this case, “fight”. She also objected to the practice of giving generic names to native characters, such as Comanche No 1; even the most disposable French trappers could enjoy being called Rambert within three seconds of being gutted by the Predator. “So I gave them names,” says Myers. “It gave the actors more spirit to get into their character. If I’m Native Woman No 1, I don’t know what it feels like. But if my name is Naru, I fight and I have that kind of spirit, I know what it is, don’t I?”
You believe she does. Myers says she moved into production in order to change “everything” about how Hollywood portrays her people. From the earliest westerns, Native Americans were, in his eyes, “romanticized by people who really didn’t know our culture.” When Indigenous people seek films in which they feel well represented, there are only “snippets” in the canon that do the job. A friend of hers says that Hollywood discovers Native Americans every 20 years; two laps back saw perhaps the most striking example, Kevin Costner’s Dances With Wolves. She admits the film was done with respect, but points out that the Lakota subtitle was often completely mistranslated. She always sees the same kind of corner-cut. “A lot of times when you’re trying to add native content or fix things in a script, you run into, ‘Oh, we don’t have the budget for that. Oh, that would be too hard. So I want to change this paradigm.
Midthunder thinks Native American on-screen opportunities are slowly growing. She compares the situation to that of her actor father, David Midthunder, who was only offered a series of roles she calls “feathers and hides”: trackers, hunters and scouts. (Billy, the terse point man in the original Predator played by part-Cherokee actor Sonny Landham, was in that vein.) companies,” says Midthunder. She brings up the teen comedy Reservation Dogs — co-created by Seminole filmmaker Sterlin Harjo with Taika Waititi — and her own role in X-Men spin-off Legion, where her mutant character’s Indigenous heritage is mentioned but not defined. The 2021 indie drama Wild Indian – a kind of Native American psychopath from Chippewa director Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr – is another recent and groundbreaking standard bearer.
Before it was finalized, Myers projected Prey to the various departments of the Comanche Nation. They loved it, but what they loved most was the fact that, for once, they were being shown an unfinished film – while they still had the chance to remake it. One thing the studio wouldn’t budge on was putting the movie as standard in the Comanche dub (the language only appears sporadically in the English version) – too bad when you consider that Apocalypto showed that this level of immersive authenticity can work for the general public.
But the most important thing, as its producer points out, is that it exists in the mainstream arena. “Because it’s sci-fi, it’s action, but there’s indigenous culture, there’s young filmmakers who will watch it and be thrilled to do something that’s theirs. own. We barely scratch the surface of the native content market. It’s untapped. Imagine if someone did something totally insane just because they watched this. Hopefully soon, cloaked aliens will be the only type of on-screen invisibility that Native Americans will have to deal with.