Susanna White’s timely, gritty ‘Woman Walks Ahead’ honors Native American Lakotas

Woman Walks Ahead, directed by Susanna White and written by Steven Knight, stars Jessica Chastain and Sam Rockwell in a Western like no other. Set in the Dakotas in the late 1800s, Brooklyn-born artist Catherine Weldon (Chastain) ventures out to the West to paint Sitting Bull’s (Michael Greyeyes) portrait.  Her visit is met by closed doors by the military who have nothing but complete disdain for the Native American Lakotas and for anyone who would be sympathetic. The film captures the grit of the era and of the woman who dared to go against expectations. Weldon’s story shows a part of American history through a different lens – a story  as heartbreaking as it is inspiring.

After a screening at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival, director Susanna White shared her insight about the making of this film.  I’m sure you’ll be as enamored with the stories she tells as I was.

Pamela Powell (PP):  This film is truly cinematically stunning and the story is equally gorgeous.  How did the film come to be?

Susanna White (SW): It was a labor of love to bring it to the screen. I was looking for a film, the sort of film that doesn’t get made much any more like The English Patient. I wanted to do an epic love story.  And my agent said, “Well, there is this Steve Knight script.” I read the screenplay and I completely fell in love with it. It was basically developed 17 years ago…and I think it’s a film that’s finally found its moment.

PP:  As I hear the word “Westerns” said with a British accent, how did you become interested in this time period?

SW:  As a child growing up in England, which has its grey skies and it’s hemmed-in and small houses, this sense of wide open land and big skies seemed amazing to me …I’ve grown up loving Westerns; loving the physical world of the Western, yet at the same time feeling like I didn’t entirely connect to it because it was such a man’s world. I think this, to me, it’s a Western through the female gaze. Catherine is our eyes and ears going into that world and we tell the other side of that story. We tell the story of the Lakota people in a way that Native Americans aren’t always [seen] in Westerns.  

PP:  You really do see the Native Americans in a different light in your film.

SW:  I really hope that’s the case. I think that’s another really strong thing about the film.  It has a very resonant environmental message for now in that the Lakota people lived in harmony with nature, they only took what they needed, they didn’t exploit nature so that it was renewable…that sense of balance is something we’re missing in the modern world. It’s very timely in lots of ways. And the whole Dakota Pipeline protest was going on at the time that we were shooting the film was extraordinary as well.

PP:  You didn’t film at Standing Rock, did you?

SW:  We filmed in New Mexico because of the tax breaks. We had a lot of the Lakota people in our crew and they would set off on days off and drive back to Standing Rock and take food and supplies for people who were protesting. It all feels so timely.  

PP:  And highlighting the strength and determination of a woman during that time period seems to resonate in today’s times as well.

SW:  I think it’s an amazing story of such a very strong woman who set out from Brooklyn in the 1880s all on her own … What’s so interesting to me is she found a kindred spirit in Sitting Bull in that they were two outsiders who didn’t really have a voice in society, but together they discovered the truest freedom is being with someone who really understands you.  

PP:  Tell me about working with Chastain.

SW:  First of all, I thought Jessica was so right for the part…She’s tremendously strong as an individual and outspoken politically, and so close in many ways to who they think Catherine Weldon might have been.

PP:  Tell me about casting Michael Greyeyes as Sitting Bull.

SW:  We spent a lot of time trying to cast Sitting Bull…He’s got a gentleness that I really wanted in Sitting Bull. When I went out on to the reservation, the first thing anybody said to me about Sitting Bull was what a great spiritual leader he was and I wanted the film to reflect that.

PP:  And Michael is Native American, right?

SW: He’s a Cree Indian from Canada and his parents…were sent to boarding school to have the Indian educated out of them …  Just as we see in the film that people destroy their traditional clothing and they weren’t allowed to practice ceremony… It’s a terrible cultural tragedy.  

PP:  How authentic is the costuming and the use of the native language?

SW:  A lot of [the wardrobe] was based on a book called “Eyewitness at Wounded Knee.” What we found was … that Native Americans were made to wear Western dress because that’s what they were told to do. What we see in the course of the film is when they start standing up for themselves, we gradually reintroduce more native dress… we had those costumes made from scratch from Buffalo skin and we semi-recreated the ghost dance shirts for the ghost dance.  

In staging the ghost dance, it was absolutely extraordinary because that dance hadn’t been danced for over 100 years. We had to consult the elders about whether it was appropriate for us to do that or not. There was a lot of discussion and finally they felt that it was a positive thing to do because it would make people aware of what exactly had happened to them.  

PP:  And the Lakota language usage in the film?

SW: We worked with the Lakota Language Conservancy with someone called Ben Blackbear .  It’s very nearly a dead language, Lakota, and there’s a big program to revive it. It was very, very important to me that I stage scenes in Lakota because I wanted Catherine Weldon to be our eyes and ears into the world and to feel like an outsider … And so it was … incredible of Sam Rockwell to learn it to a level that he could do that big scene that he has with Michael Greyeyes at the the end of the movie.


PP:  Please tell me about your extraordinary cinematographer!

SW: He’s so wonderful. His name’s Mike Eley. I’ve worked with him for over 20 years.  We started out in documentaries together and he’s my lifetime collaborator. Some of those people think it was CGI with Jessica in the graveyard that was just completely natural …  She had amazing moments like the moment when Sitting Bull tells her he’s going to die, we got lightning in the back of her shot. It happened on the close up and the same point on the mid-shot, the lightning came again.  It was quite extraordinary.

Everything about this film is quite extraordinary. The film opens in theaters on June 29 and while DirectTV subscribers can see this in the comfort of their own homes earlier, the full experience should be in a theater setting.

© Pamela Powell (4/30/18) FF2 Media

Photos courtesy of Bedford Falls Company, The, Black Bicycle Entertainment, Potboiler Productions

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New York native film critic and film critic Pamela Powell now resides near Chicago, interviewing screenwriters and directors of big blockbusters and independent gems as an Associate for FF2 Media. With a graduate degree from Northwestern in Speech-Language Pathology, she has tailored her writing, observational, and evaluative skills to encompass all aspects of film. With a focus on women in film, Pamela also gravitates toward films that are eye-opening, educational, and entertaining with the hopes of making this world a better place. 
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