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'Skins' uncovers tough times on the reservation

Friday, February 28, 2003

By Barry Paris, Post-Gazette Film Critic

I always thought of Mount Rushmore as the one great national landmark that everyone agreed was awesomely beautiful from any angle. Not, it seems, from directly below. That is the vantage -- or disadvantage -- point of the Pine Ridge Reservation's Oglala Sioux, on whose sacred mountain those four giant presidential faces were carved. To American Indians in South Dakota, it's more symbol of subjugation than monument to freedom -- a constant reminder of the red man's genocidal defeat by the white.


RATING: R in nature for strong language

STARRING: Graham Greene, Eric Schweig, Gary Farmer, Noah Watts

DIRECTOR: Chris Eyre


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Badlands beauty is in its beholders' "Skins," the title of a realistic slice of contemporary life on the site of the American Indians' final 19th-century tragedy: the 1890 massacre by federal troops of 200 disarmed Sioux men, women and children at Wounded Knee Creek.

Grim history notwithstanding, "Skins" is not a political film. Its subject is the subtler ongoing massacre of attrition stemming from poverty (average income $2,600/year), unemployment (75 percent) and alcoholism (nine times the national average) -- and the crime, domestic abuse, health and spiritual crises they produce.

If Marcia Davenport and John Wideman hadn't already appropriated it, "My Brother's Keeper" might have been the name of this: Rudy Yellow Lodge (Eric Schweig), a reservation cop, is the unhappy keeper of his brother as well as the peace. Big bro Mogie (Graham Greene) "got short-circuited in Vietnam" and has become a sloppy, belligerent public drunk -- to the shame of his wife (Lois Red Elk) and football-star son (Noah Watts), not to mention the fraternal order of humiliation he causes Rudy.

Rudy's rage is a thing of the present more than of the past, with a streak of vigilante vengeance. When unable to pin a murder on the guilty culprits, he metes out justice of his own. The rampant alcoholism on his "dry" reservation galls him. He's particularly incensed about the little town, just over the Nebraska/South Dakota line, that has 22 people but four liquor stores, heavily patronized by the Indians. Somebody'd be doing them a favor to torch that place -- and somebody does.

"Skins" is the second outing of director Chris Eyre (a Cheyenne/Arapaho), after his successful debut with "Smoke Signals" (based on Sherman Alexie's book "The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven"), the first full-length feature film written, directed and produced by American Indians for mainstream release. It won awards at the 1998 Sundance festival for the dignified balance it maintained between comedy and tragedy -- realism and mysticism -- in its "How do we forgive our fathers?" theme.

Forgiving our brothers -- the theme here -- should be easier, and it is, but with far less comedy or mysticism. Based on the novel by Adrian C. Louis, a poet-teacher at Oglala Lakota College in Pine Ridge, "Skins" fearlessly and relentlessly focuses on Mogie as a member of the reservation's "untouchable" class -- a profoundly irreversible alcoholic, more intriguing for his reverse progression from hopelessness to hope -- for the brothers' opposite epiphanies of violence and restraint.

Greene, an Oscar nominee for his fine supporting role as Kicking Bird in "Dancing With Wolves," is superb here. No less effective is Schweig (a recovering alcoholic in real life, and unashamed to say so). The American Indian characters they represent speak differently from whites and blacks, in certain modes and cadences that sound stiff at first and take some aural adjustment. If you can make it, you'll be rewarded by the honesty and simplicity and non-Hollywood gloss of what critic Scott Momaday calls "an equation of anger and survival, acceptance and defiance." That liquor store they burned down? Turns out it was well-insured and will be reopening soon -- only much bigger, with a drive-through window for added convenience.

You don't know whether to laugh or to cry, so you do both.

Barry Paris can be reached at 412-263-3859.

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