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Films >> Black Robe (1991) >> Scene Analysis >>

Mighty White of Him: Beresford's Attempt to Equalize the French and Algonquins

By Bob Kilker, with comment by Tatum Lawrence and Kelsey Cannon

[1] Richard Schickel of Time has suggested that Black Robe "makes us feel (and taste and smell) that otherness, the discomfiting strangeness of these lives [of the priests and natives], the authentic tragedy of their collision" (71). Though not all mainstream critics have used terms like "otherness" when reviewing Black Robe, the general consensus has been that the film portrays with equal sympathy the Jesuits and the Algonquins. However, scholars who have examined the film since its 1991 release argue that it still primitivizes the natives, marking them as "other" than the more dignified priests. For Ward Churchill, author of Indians Are Us? Culture and Genocide in Native North America, this otherness comes across most clearly in the differences between white and native sexuality. He notes that Chomina's daughter Annuka has a "proclivity . . . to copulate voraciously with whatever male she happens to find convenient when the urge strikes. More shocking, she obviously prefers to do it in the dirt, on all fours, in what is colloquially called 'dog style'" (Churchill 128). Daniel teaches her the "missionary" position, which is "morally--and in some places, legally--defined as the only 'unperverted' sexual posture in the United States, Canada, and [director Bruce] Beresford's Australian homeland" (Churchill 129).

[2] Even though evidence suggests Beresford's failure to present an even-handed look at two vastly different cultures, it is important to acknowledge the filmmaker's attempt at objectivity. I say this not to give the director kudos for a good ol' college try but to propose examining the scenes where the representations of Jesuits and natives appear to be fair. Those scenes may be more insidious in that they hide a message of white dominance behind pretensions to equality. One scene that attempts this portrayal of Algonquin-French equality is Champlain's presentation of the Jesuits to their Algonquin protectors (0:08:00). At first, the camera crosscuts between the French and the Algonquins, apparently equating the actions of the two peoples; however, that sameness soon breaks down, as whiteness reasserts itself over Indian otherness. (see comment by Tatum Lawrence)

[3] Beresford seems insistent on convincing the audience that the French and the Algonquins are "really the same" in this early scene. Set after nightfall outside the Quebec mission, the scene opens with Chomina dressing for the ceremony in a ritual manner. He applies green paint to his face. The scene cuts to Champlain donning a metal breastplate then cuts to an Algonquin placing green hand prints on Chomina's chest. Cutting to Champlain having a medallion placed around his neck, the film quickly moves back to Chomina receiving a necklace of his own. Champlain puts on a large fur coat; Chomina dons a large animal hide. The two men have prepared for the night's event. Although we (and by we, I suppose, I am referring to the predominantly white audience the film reached) are perhaps more accustomed to the shirt and trousers that Champlain wears, we are clearly meant to consider the two elaborate rituals of dress equally strange. On the other hand, our directorial instructions to equate the two men's rituals allow whites to identify with Chomina (We may have different rituals, but we all put our animal hides on one arm at a time!).

[4] The linking of white and indigenous cultures does not end with the dressing habits of their leaders. Through further cross-cutting and the joining of Frenchmen and Algonquins in single shots, Beresford displays a variety of similarities between them. Both groups sing and dance to the music they create, the Algonquins primarily playing drums and the French relying mainly on woodwinds and stringed instruments. In a more subtle move that unites the two groups, the Frenchmen are actually singing in French, which means that both are using a language that is "foreign" to the primarily English-speaking audience. The film shows, in the same shot, both Algonquins and Frenchmen smoking. The two crowds are not purposefully sitting together, but the camera unites them to suggest their likeness. The French and Algonquins are further linked by their desires for the other. Specifically, we see the young Frenchman, Daniel, gazing at the Algonquins--not merely at Annuka, the object of his sexual desire. He looks at the men, aspiring to become like them, a wish he later tries to fulfill, braiding his hair like the Algonquins, sympathizing with their religion, and having sex with Annuka. She, in turn, gazes at the Frenchmen, although the meaning of her stare can easily be interpreted as sexual desire, given that she never attempts to adopt French cultural practices (apart from missionary sex). Daniel's desires are those of the noble white man, a la Dances with Wolves, while Annuka's are those Ward Churchill laments in his study of cultural representations of Indians. (see comment by Kelsey Cannon)

[5] To find the differences between Daniel and Annuka's desires, a viewer requires the context of the entire film. However, other signifiers in the scene require only what has been given in the previous eight minutes. As Fr. Laforgue and Fr. Bourque walk to the ceremony, an Algonquin woman shouts to them "Dong! Dong! Dong! Captain Clock! Captain Clock!" and then laughs. Her outcry recalls the first scene in which we see the Algonquins, sitting on the floor of the mission and staring up at a mechanized clock, which they believe to be the Blackrobes' god. One native asks Fr. Bourque what the clock says as it strikes four; he tells them it says "It's time to go." Though the woman recalling Captain Clock laughs (which might suggest subversion of Jesuit authority), the camera shoots her from a long distance, from Laforgue and Bourque's perspective. We are not encouraged to laugh with her but to see her as distant, "foreign" (in her own land) from civilization.

[6] The ceremony itself further subordinates the Algonquins to the Frenchmen. The natives sit on the ground, recalling their "Captain Clock" scene, which introduces the tribe as intellectually and culturally inferior to the whites. The Jesuits and other Frenchmen sit in chairs. One may argue that the natives sit on the ground simply because it is historically accurate or "realistic." But the positioning of the two serves functions beyond realism. The Frenchmen are filmed at eye level, as if the audience were facing them directly; the Algonquins are filmed from above. The audience literally (and metaphorically) looks down upon the natives.

[7] Not only does the Algonquins' position vis a vis the camera shift, but also the soundtrack relegates them to the margins. The Frenchmen may sing in their "foreign" tongue when they are at play. However, when Champlain commends Laforgue to the natives' care in exchange for pots, axes, knives, and yarn, he speaks English, the language of the film's primary audience. Chomina, the Algonquin chief who serves as translator, presents Champlain's command to his people with no subtitles for the audience. What does it matter to know exactly what Chomina says, as long as he conveys Champlain's message?

[8] While the ceremony suggests the whites' domination over the Algonquins, the scene's conclusion offers an opportunity to trouble that hierarchy. As the fur-covered Champlain walks past two dandified Frenchmen in ruffled shirts and with feathers in their hats, one suggests to the other that Champlain's dressing "like a savage" suggests, "We're not colonizing the Indians; they're colonizing us." The other denies the possibility of becoming like "those wild woodsmen," claiming that he will go back to France as soon as winter ends. Fr. Laforgue reprimands the latter gentleman, not for speaking unkindly about the Algonquins, but for presuming that he will survive: "If the winter doesn't kill us, the Indians might." Laforgue's correction reinforces that this story is not about the meeting of two "strange" cultures, but one "civilized" group trying to teach one primitive, potentially violent group. The film may at times pretend to equalize its perspectives of the French and Algonquins, but it always recovers that balance, replacing it with a Eurocentric hierarchy.


Tatum Lawrence 4/30/12

The thing that strikes me most about this scene and emphasizes the impending separation of these two cultures is the underlying militarism of the interaction. Both parties begin by donning ritualistic attributes of war. The Englishmen adorn themselves in heavy metal armor, and the Natives cover their body in traditional paint. Each begins by dancing around their own fires and in hand, as if emphasizing their own specific group and culture. When the music changes from Native to European chants, it is not a smooth transition -- the music is discordant, and hardly pleasing to the audience's ear. Furthermore, when the Europeans make their way into the Native camp, they march, bearing torches, single file as if in the military. When the priests are addressed, they are referred to as "soldiers of heaven," emphasizing their militaristic role in this endeavor. The militaristic undercurrents of this scene imply not only "otherness," but the fact that these two cultures are bound to butt heads eventually.

Kelsey Cannon 4/30/12

The musical coincidence of the two groups is interesting. In one sense the viewer can interpret the dual portrayal of both musical styles as harmonious, but in the film the music collides and clashes into an unpleasant sound, perhaps more so reflecting the stalemate between the two groups rather than their together-ness. If we interpret the music and ceremony in the latter form, the fact that the French control the situation acts as a stronger symbol for the relationship between the tribe and the French men. It is important, however, that we do not ignore how critical of colonization and conversion the movie actually is. Of course, to our trained "white" eye under the guidance of a white director and a white film cast, the movie does portray the natives in a juvenile and primitive kind of way--which makes me curious about the tone that a movie produced by natives would take on this story--but the movie, until the end, does sustain a sense of skepticism about the mission of the Jesuits. Is it possible that the idiosyncrasies of both groups are played up to a caricatureistic fashion?