Today’s blog comes from actor, writer, director and Stage 32 member Carlisle Antonio from New York. After leaving his acting career, Carlisle took up writing and directing, but found that the studio system wasn't interested in telling the stories that interested him. Carlisle decided to take matters into his own hands, writing and shooting his own material thereby controlling his content from concept to completion.
In this entry, Carlisle talks about the struggles he’s experienced trying to make it in the film industry as a Native American, exposing some of the problems regarding censorship and stereotyping that continue to plague Hollywood today. In addition, Carlisle shares his thoughts on film as a powerful tool to be utilized to spread positive ideals and possibly change the world.
I thank Carlisle for his contribution to the Stage 32 Blog.
It’s an honor and a privilege to be asked to write a blog on this forum with esteemed professionals across the globe visiting this popular and ever-growing site.
I am probably the first Native American that has been asked to do this on Stage 32 and hopefully, many others will follow. So if this is the case, then I feel an additional sense of pride and responsibility to be able to convey something that is perhaps useful or informational.
Most of the time I shy away from talking about myself, not because I don’t think that I live an interesting life or feel less than others. As a filmmaker, my eye is always looking at the other guy, so to speak. I find other people’s stories far more interesting.
In brief, my family originates from Lame Deer, Montana and Wounded Knee, South Dakota. They are Northern Cheyenne and Oglala Lakota. I was lucky enough to travel the world, live in many different countries and sample the incredible hospitality, food, culture amongst other things. I’ve shared in some amazing journeys with people who’ve helped change my life in so many different ways and to them, I am forever grateful.
My interest in theatre and film goes back to my childhood. I remember acting out many of my own stories or recreating films that influenced me in my youth. I really didn’t follow directors or writers that much. I was influenced by strong characters and stories that seemed to transform my everyday life into one that got me into a lot of trouble in school, as I was considered a “dreamer” by my teachers and contemporaries.
I used to wonder what they did with the bodies of the people that got killed in the movies. I used to be amazed seeing them alive in the next movie. Only much later on did I realize that it was just “make believe.” It was similar to discovering the myth about Santa Claus. Can you imagine the disappointment?
I guess I’m just a romantic and I see the world through this lens. However, the questions I tend to ask nowadays are a lot different, and these questions keep driving me on to make a difference in the world we live in. So naturally I chose storytelling as my tool to make this difference. Film is a medium by which stories can reach people across the globe, connecting with them in some positive way and in doing so, perhaps change the world (I was born a romantic, I’m sure going to die as one, and I’m okay with that).
In indigenous cultures across the globe we say, “Dream your world into existence.” In reality, if you think about this, we all constantly do this in our lives. For instance, thinking about becoming a writer, or an actor, doctor, lawyer or whatever profession we choose is just a dream in our heads, until we take those steps to accomplish those dreams. Going to college, taking acting lessons, law school, etc. We make these dreams a reality, so it’s not really hard to understand the idea of dreaming our world into existence. My ancestors knew what they were talking about. In one way, we could all be classified as romantics. But the difference that separates the good dreamers from the bad is a strong work ethic. That work ethic determines the differences between dreams and reality.
During the 90’s, a film that resurrected an interest in Native America was Kevin Costner’s Dances With Wolves, which made a huge global impact. The world had gone through various fashionable trends from the Far East, Africa, etc. and like most fashionable trends, this interest had a limited shelf life as the spiritual tourists continued to search for the next best trend to satisfy whatever their craving of the moment happened to be. The U.S. of course was not really interested in the making of this film and I think Mr. Costner got a large proportion of his funding from outside the U.S.
Whilst this film may have stirred a lot of interest for Native America, Native Americans themselves did not respond too favorably, reasons being that the film just fed into the spiritual tourism trap of passing fads and at the same time verified the same old idea that Native Americans needed the “white man” to save them from themselves.
“Indians” were the very first people that were photographed since the invention of the camera. It was the romanticism that existed in the early days, from the dime novels and the silent era, that created the storytelling tropes of “noble savages,” “pioneers,” “cowboys” and “frontiers” that needed to be civilized and protected from the marauding Indians. This myth is still carried on to this day and can be seen in hundreds of films.
As an actor, I’ve done many different “walk-on’s” on TV and even a famous Oscar winning film. Had my scenes not ended up on the cutting room floor, who knows how much more successful I could be as an actor. However, I did gain the invaluable experience of working for a major Hollywood production, performing in front of the camera and watching seasoned professionals at work. Of course all these roles were near naked “Indian” type roles.
To be honest, I never really liked the acting roles I was presented with. So even though I had agents in London and LA offering me auditions from the stereotypical sublime to the ridiculous, I walked away from becoming a serious actor. I realized that the only way I could see my kind of stories made was to do it myself.
I was living in London when opportunity came knocking. By chance, I happened to go to a media fair that was being held at a university campus and stumbled across a BBC booth. I began to talk with one of the presenters and she told me that they were looking to invest a fair amount of money into a select few new projects. I remember thinking that this was my shot and whilst talking with her, I quickly formed up an idea for a project that I thought would at least pique her interest. Eventually, after having submitted the treatment and script, I learned that I was one of the 40 chosen out of the 400,000 that applied. This project became the documentary feature, Coloring the Media.
At the BBC I was taught investigative journalism, scripting, working a camera, sound and lighting, filmmaking, directing for television and editing. I spent the next few years journeying through various television doors, picking up little bits and pieces of work with organizations such as Turner Network Television, Disney, Channel 4, etc.
But some stories that I thought would be incredible, never saw the light of day. I signed official documents that prohibited me from telling these stories, as some of these stories dealt with Special Forces, Special Operations, Black Ops and private contractors and their operations during the war in the Gulf and Iraq. I remember having stories about pharmaceutical giant corporations killing people out in Southeast Asia during their drug testing cycles get shut down because “they would sue the pants off us and tie us up in litigation that would take twenty years.”
Long story short, I knocked on every door on every continent on every broadcaster that I thought would listen. I didn’t realize that there was a much bigger game at stake. Of course, all throughout my life I had been exposed to racism and racists. I wanted to talk about the genocide and the continuous endemic problems facing indigenous people in the world today. Every door that closed in my face spurred me on to keep moving on.
Race and racism is a lot more than “rednecks” and Nazis and anti-immigration controversies. It’s a very powerful hidden force that most who don’t even think of themselves as racists are somehow part of. It’s not about people of color or tribe or geographical boundaries. It’s an idea and a value based upon the absence of understanding and thought and permeates our society on every level. It stifles creation and our evolution as human beings. I think it belongs to all of us as it resonates with every news feed or war or conflict around the world. It affects each and every one of us regardless of background, ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation. It colors our perception of the world, and to counter this, we have to really debunk, unlearn and rethink our values, which takes constant effort.
As filmmakers and storytellers, it is of the utmost importance that we who generally think outside the box bring to the world our senses of romance and faith and love. This doesn’t mean that we stop reporting the gruesome and the hideous with the atrocity, it just means that we pay close attention to the balance of all things.
Just recently, this phenomena has reared its ugly head within Hollywood yet again. The Adam Sandler production, The Ridiculous Six, ridiculed, insulted and denigrated Native Americans with absurdities and extreme racism that prompted the actors to walk out from this production. In the year 2015, when the world still looks to this great nation of ours as a beacon of hope, (even if they don’t choose to admit it) why would anyone continue to perpetrate this same, old, systemic abuse of people who are still struggling with identity and purpose? Would these filmmakers allow the same sense of ridicule for Jewish people, or African Americans, Asian Americans, Muslims, etc.?
As a Filmmaker and CEO of Red Man Films, living between New York, Mexico and San Francisco, I am currently working on a film called Walking the Line, which is about teen suicide in Indian Country. For all of you not aware, the Pine Ridge Reservation has been declared to be in a state of emergency. Since December 2014, some 14 young people between the ages of 9 and 14 have committed suicide. This does not even begin to touch on the other problems facing Native teens across the rest of North America and Canada. Native Americans have the highest rate of suicide than any other racial group in the Western Hemisphere.
I know that many doors will close in my face, as most will not want me to tell this story. I am convinced, however, that I have something worthwhile to say. Even though the raising of finance is tough, as most broadcasters will probably never schedule it for their programming and most investors tend to shy away from projects that deal with Native America, I know that this story has to be told.
I believe that in telling this story, maybe just maybe, we could save one young person’s life. Film is powerful, and the telling of these and other stories is an essential part of our responsibility as citizens of the world. We must be accountable to our Creator and to our fellow human beings that we share this journey with. I am dreaming my world into existence and hopefully, I can join hands with some of you along the way.
In the words of one of our sacred leaders, Sitting Bull: “Let us put our minds together and see what life we can make for our children.”
Mitakuye Oyasin (For all my relatives)
Thank you for your time. See you in the movies.
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As always, Carlisle is available for questions and remarks in the Comments section below...