Directed by Susanna White and written by Steven Knight, Woman Walks Ahead is a historically inspired biopic about widowed painter Catherine Weldon's attempts to capture Sitting Bull on canvas in the midst of the Sioux fighting for their land. (DLH: 3/5)
Review by FF2 Intern Dayna Hagewood
At the start of the film, Catherine Weldon (Jessica Chastain) tosses her dead husband’s portrait into a river, as if to physically demonstrate the beginning of her freedom. After being liberated from an unhappy marriage, she is free to pursue her dream of painting the illusive legend and leader of the Sioux, Sitting Bull (Michael Greyeyes).
Though Weldon’s journey sets off as hopeful, she is quickly met by a silent train car full of men, insults and warnings, and even physical abuse for her aspirations. Despite the constant threats and disapproval, she eventually meets Sitting Bull and pays him to stand for a portrait. The two slowly develop a close relationship, and Weldon gets swept up in the politics of 1800s western expansion.
While her uncompromising will is indeed admirable, it seems that the focus is placed too heavily in the first half of the film on Weldon’s struggles as opposed to the tribes of people she is surrounded by that are constantly attacked and mistreated by the American government. We initially learn her back-story, her traumas, and her aspirations foregrounded against the troubles of the Sioux.
However, just about half way through Woman Walks Ahead, Weldon takes a backseat to the rightful uprising of the Native American people. We watch as Sitting Bull regains his strength and ambition to try to save the sacred land that was possessed by tribes for centuries before white infringement. It is at this point that the film gains momentum and becomes more than a white-savior complex.
Woman Walks Ahead is engulfed entirely in gorgeous cinematography throughout, and even contains light-hearted moments as Weldon attempts to navigate her role within a community she never expected to be a part of. Because of this, certain shots speak more to white cruelty than conversations between the generals and pro-treaty advocates.
For example, when Weldon discovers a cemetery with hundreds of tombstones engraved with American propaganda like “Colonel X, murdered by the Sioux,” the distaste on her face stands in stark contrast with the gloomy and exceedingly large American flag waving behind her. These contrasts are unsettling and an important part of the point that the film does eventually succeed in making; the real villains are not the Native Americans at all, but those that slaughtered them and claimed their land.
Though the film makes many efforts to humanize Native Americans and particularly Sitting Bull, it is too heavy handed at points. It almost seems as though the filmmakers are attempting to romance and justify the actions of the Native Americans, which isn’t necessary. Fighting systematic injustices doesn’t need an explanation; it should be a given.
This is particularly evident when Sitting Bull is explaining his own painting of killing soldiers that were trying to take his community’s land. He has to explain to Weldon that he has only killed in defense of his people and his home to get her to understand his art piece. This seems counter-productive in the grand scheme of the situation; he should not have to justify his actions of self-dense against a system of brutality.
Despite its flaws, Woman Walks Ahead does rightfully attempt to correct the white history of western expansion in the 1800s. Weldon’s shift into the background during the second half of the film saves it from becoming another white-centric Western, and leaves viewers feeling both saddened and even possibly inspired to take action against current political parallels of white supremacy and nationalism.
© Dayna Hagewood (7/5/2018) FF2 Media
Featured Photo: Sitting Bull and Catherine Weldon atop horses.
Top Photo: Jessica Chastain as Catherine Weldon.
Bottom Photo: Sitting Bull and Catherine Weldon.
Photo Credits: Richard Foreman Jr.
Does Woman Walks Ahead pass the Bechdel-Wallace test?
No, it does not. Catherine Weldon is surrounded by men throughout the entire film, and is unable to communicate with any of the women in the tribe due to the language barriers. Though she does very briefly speak with a woman from the town where she buys supplies, she is not named.