Heather Rae’s “Trudell” celebrates the life and art of John Trudell, the Native American writer and activist who was once the spokesman for the American Indian Movement and is now best known for his poetry and recordings.
“Trudell” works best when the film focuses on Trudell’s involvement in Native politics, beginning with the 1969-71 Indian occupation of Alcatraz Island. Coming off the civil rights movement of the 1960s and running parallel to the women’s lib movement of the early 1970s, the American Indian Movement brought another disenfranchised group into the national consciousness. But unlike those other movements, the Native struggle crushed in much the same way the American government always handled Native struggles: with military violence. Archival footage of the FBI’s paramilitary response to the Indian takeover of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, in 1973 might come as a shock to many people who are unaware this incident ever took place (it’s never mentioned in history books or on American history-related television programming).
The FBI clearly had its eye on Trudell – he was the subject of a 17,000-page dossier. FBI intimidation might have been the cause for the 1979 arson-related deaths of his wife, children and mother-in-law in his Nevada home. The Trudell residence was under surveillance for a long time and the sudden fiery death occurred less than 12 hours after Trudell burned an American flag at FBI headquarters in Washington as part of a demonstration.
After this family tragedy, Trudell’s focus shifted away from political activism and over to politically-tinged poetry and performance art (he’s also done a few movie acting gigs). In this aspect, “Trudell” falters as the film becomes littered with quasi-music videos using found footage to illustrate Trudell’s recordings. It also doesn’t help that too much of his poetry is of an anvil quality and that his spoken word performance style is strident. Despite on-screen cheering from the likes of Robert Redford, Val Kilmer and Bonnie Raitt (but not Angelina Jolie, who is an executive producer of “Trudell”), one cannot but feel Trudell’s talents as a performer are fairly limited.
The problem is not the message – which needs to be heard, given the continued state of poverty affecting much of the Indian population – but the messenger, who, quite frankly, is not as charismatic as many of his fans might wish to believe.