Don’t blame Taylor Lautner.
He’s the winsome 16-year-old from Holland (Michigan, that is) who won the role of Jacob Black in the upcoming film Twilight based off Stephenie Meyer’s mega-selling book series.
It’s quite a role, let me tell you. Twilight’s Edward, Bella and Jacob are well on their way to becoming the next Harry, Hermione and Ron. But unlike Harry, Hermione, Ron, Edward and Bella, young Jacob is a Native American; a member of the Quileute tribe from northwest Washington.
Taylor Lautner, by contrast, is not Quileute. In fact, he’s not Navajo, Cree, Lakota, Cherokee, Mohawk, or Ojibwa. He’s not Native at all (unless you consider his recent “discovery” of a long-ago Indian ancestor lurking in the family tree).
Yet the winsome 16-year-old from Holland is Hollywood’s vision of Quileute’s werewolf teen heartthrob. Look at it this way…Imagine casting Kate Bosworth as Celie in The Color Purple.
Outrageous? Offensive? Yup, on both counts, which is why the screaming silence from the self-appointed arbiters of the culturally correct is all the more…well…outrageous and offensive. And not at all new.
Native Americans have been minimalized, trivialized, co opted and appropriated for as long as there have been movies; burnished caricatures of the savage, Indian princess or mystic played by White folk speaking pigeon English. By today’s standards, the vision of Natalie Wood, Chuck Connors and Burt Lancaster in brown makeup and bad wigs might seem quaintly amusing. Think again.
It has been a hard, long slog for contemporary Natives to break free of these overtly racist stereotypes—which is why a major film like Twilight is such a prime opportunity to introduce the world to a contemporary Native who isn’t an alcoholic or New Age spiritualist.
The claim that no young Native actors have the qualifications to fill the role is nonsense. For starters, Nakotah Larance, who appeared in HBO’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and was a standout in Spielberg’s Into the West miniseries definitely has the resume, talent and looks. Yet the six-time world champion hoop dancer was passed over as were other capable Native actors.
Too “Indian,” perhaps?
Unlike other ethnic groups, Natives have not moved into the ranks of Hollywood’s coveted minority d’jour status. Sadly, they are not alone. Last year’s film, 21, based off the true story of MIT’s blackjack team, conveniently altered some key characteristics of the original students—llike the fact that the math wizards who bested the Vegas casinos were Asian. Not to pick on British actor Jim Sturgess or the talentless Kate Bosworth again, but neither look vaguely Chinese to me.
Which brings us back to Twilight. In interviews, Lautner has complained about his Indian wig blowing in his face and being itchy, but don’t get the idea he hasn’t taken the time to research his character’s Native roots.
“I was expecting something so much different than me, but they real thing is that they're (the Quileute) just like me,” Lautner said at the 2008 San Diego Comic Con. “They show up in basketball uniforms. We were talking about, 'What do you like to do for fun?' 'Oh, I like to go to the beach. I check out girls.' I was like, 'Really? You little Quileute boys...’”
Don’t blame Taylor Lautner.