Wes Studi stars as the title character in the highly anticipated new short film, Ronnie BoDean, which premiered at the deadCenter Film Festival in Oklahoma City this weekend. It is the latest work by director and artist Steven Judd, who is known for his feature film, American Indian Graffiti: This Thing Life, and his comedic shorts like Search for the World’s Best Indian Taco. In between films Judd is also known for appropriating images and ideas from mainstream popular culture and repurposing them for Indian country, such as giving the Incredible Hulk braids for his painting The Indian Hulk or spray painting pro-Indian graffiti at last year’s Santa Fe Art Market, à la Banksy. For this new film his inspiration came from Tom Laughlin’s 1971 counterculture action flick, Billy Jack.
“In watching films, growing up, I’ve always been a fan of the anti-hero,” Judd said. “I always liked the cool, and funny, and rough around the edges, but with a heart of gold, type of characters. I always wanted to see a cool character like that, but played by a Native person. We never see that, right? The cool roles always go to the white guy. Once we started making our own films as Native People and putting our own image out there, at first there was a lot of correction of what we had seen previously, but at the same time I think there was a little bit of preciousness we had about the Native character, in that we kind of didn’t want to show too many flaws, I felt. We just didn’t see that kind of character. So that was the genesis of it all; I just wanted to see a Native anti-hero.”
“I was also very specific that I wanted the Indian guy to save the day,” Judd added. “Which we don’t even see in movies we think about with Indians, like Dances with Wolves or Last of the Mohicans. I wanted to make a picture with a Native person where he wasn’t getting saved by a non-Native.”
Ronnie wakes up in his car after a night of hard drinking and sees his neighbor being arrested. The neighbor’s two children come home from school and Ronnie takes care of them, as Judd says, the best way he knows how, by teaching them three-card monty so they will have a tool to help them survive. The dark comedy is only 12 minutes long, but it is dense with jokes that Native Americans will get (Ronnie drives a Rez/muscle car, there is sage in the ashtray, he gives one of the children milk in a casino glass, his house number is “1491”) but while the film is intensely Indian, the references are not important to the plot, which can be enjoyed by anyone regardless of their Native literacy.
“Except for the nuances of specifically Native stuff, it’s still just an anti-hero that could have been played by a white actor and it would have been just fine, but there are nuances that I wanted to give to an Indian person,” Judd said. “He has a little sweet grass on his dashboard; there are things where if you are around a lot of Indians you see these things, they are not talked about, but it’s no big deal. I definitely wanted to do some of that stuff that I see in my own house, so that way you know this guy is an Indian guy, but it’s not about him being an Indian guy, you know what I mean?”
Judd was able to get ahold of Wes Studi through the film’s executive producer, Chris Eyre, and within 2 weeks of their initial meeting they were shooting. “It was amazing,” said Judd, who seems overwhelmed that such an iconic actor is playing the role. “Of course if you are a Native person, you know who Wes Studi is; you’ve seen him. He’s Magua, you know, ‘Why does Magua hate the Grey Hair?’ You know?”
Judd made the short to shop around in hope of continuing Ronnie BoDean’s adventures through a feature film or a television series. “I love Ronnie as a character, I want to see more of Ronnie, I think he’s fun and he’s cool. There are movies out there that people need to see, that teaches them something, but dang, man, I mean it’s time that we had some films that are fun, that we can go watch and just relax and get a crazy characters. There’s nothing wrong with us having movies that are entertaining too.”
“When I was a kid, if I had seen this, and it is not a kid’s movie, by no means, but I would have thought this was one, bad, cool dude. I wanted to make a film where if I was a kid, I could go home and emulate this guy doing karate, knocking people out, saving the day, and driving a muscle car.”
Ronnie BoDean played twice at the deadCenter Film Festival at the Harkins Theater in Oklahoma City. It will also play at the National Museum of the American Indian’s Native Cinema Showcase at the Santa Fe Indian Market in August.
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