Korina Emmerich in Red Fever | Les Films 3 Mars

Red Fever Review: Mascots No More

The cultural appropriation debate (sort of) heats up

8 mins read

Red Fever
(Canada, 104 min.)
Dir. Neil Diamond, Catherine Bainbridge


“It’s unfortunate that Columbus is viewed as discovering America when, in fact, many of the European-origin people came here and discovered democracy,” author/activist Gloria Steinem says in Red Fever. “It’s the biggest example I can think of of an undeveloped or less developed culture being valued over a more developed one.”

The great feminist icon provides a novel soundbite in Red Fever depending upon how one chooses to interest it. On one hand, Steinem makes an astute observation around the midpoint of this documentary by directors Neil Diamond and Catherine Bainbridge. She could, with the right eyes, be noting that the case of Europeans encountering democracy is the best example of Indigenous practices being appropriated by settlers.

On the other hand, Steinem’s comment might play as totally tone-deaf an hour into a documentary about cultural appropriation. A subtext of the documentary is the settler notion of “development” that positions European culture as the norm. The film’s already spent several chapters building an argument that Indigenous culture was far more sophisticated than settlers gave it credit for, with some of the proof being the appropriation of Indigenous practices and customs by white people. Steinem, something of an odd choice on the talking heads front in Red Fever, serves as either a punctuation mark for a tonal shift or a foot-in-her-mouth interviewee with the right interpretation. Maybe she’s both.

The fact that one can read Steinem two ways an hour into Red Fever, however, illustrates how the documentary pivots after developing a narrative arc. Diamond and Bainbridge smartly precede the chapters on politics and the environment with discussions about cultural appropriation and misrepresentation in film, music, sport, and fashion. The arts and culture chapters of the film make some strong arguments, but the documentary changes the argument in the final chapters about democracy and environmentalism.

Diamond once again serves as narrator and guide. He hosts a tour through a complicated history of settlers’ fascination with Indigenous culture. The film considers cases in which white people have stolen, plagiarised, fetishized, idealised, and romanticised Indigenous practices, customs, and images.

However, the film goes surprisingly somewhat soft given the hot-button topicality of its content. Audiences expecting cutaways to notorious pretendians in entertainment and academia won’t find them. Instead of focusing on individual white people exploiting Indigenous culture for personal gain, Diamond and Bainbridge take a “bigger picture” approach. This film queries the culture that treats one part of the population as a collective mascot.

The segment on sports is especially compelling. Diamond looks on in disgust as sports fans pantomime a tomahawk chop while cheering on one of the many teams named with an Indigenous, or Indigen-ish, moniker. The sports chapter also highlights Indigenous athletes, like Jim Thorpe of the Sac and Fox Nation. The film tells how Thorpe won two Olympic gold medals for the USA and had them stripped instead of being cheered a hero. While Indigenous iconography offered cartoonish mascots, Red Fever illustrates how actual Indigenous athletes weren’t getting a fair shake.

The documentary later makes some original points when it observes that democracy, often positioned as a hallmark of “western” society, actually draws from the Iroquois Confederacy. The talking heads make compelling arguments about the growth of democratic processes in the United States being indebted to the practices of cultures they violently erased. But the upbeat turn doesn’t really jive with the preceding arguments of cultural appropriation or fascination. Ditto the grand finale about salmon farming in British Columbia. Red Fever ends by showing how the practises that originally governed these lands and waters will ultimately save them. It’s an optimistic note, and a very different tone from the one Diamond strikes at the outset, but not the most satisfying conclusion to the argument the film tees up.

While Red Fever adds to the conversation of Indigenous (self-)representation, it frequently plays like a memory of a stronger film that Bainbridge and Diamond have made before. The emphasis on Hollywood, which offers visual material in every chapter of the film, simply evokes the excellence of Diamond and Bainbridge’s Reel Injun. The 2009 film, which won a Peabody and a slew of Gemini Awards, might be the definitive work about Hollywood’s problem with representation and authorship. Reel Injun really digs into the topic and the impact of negative representation, as well as the benefit of positive representation. But Red Fever covers an awful lot of terrain selectively. (Bainbridge also tackled Indigenous voices in music in the terrific Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World.)

For example, Red Fever considers the problematic and simplified portrayal of Indigenous characters in film. The idea of “savages” or “noble exceptions” runs throughout as clips from movies both classic and contemporary offer punctuation marks.

In some cases, though, Red Fever decontextualizes these images to serve a point. A snippet from Parasite shows a character in a headdress, but the South Korean drama actually uses the headdress to illustrate a wealthy and privileged child’s appropriation of problematic Western child’s play.

Similarly, excerpts from scenes used for satirical purposes play straight. The “bring out yer dead” clip from Monty Python might not be the best example of Ye Olde England. But it also illustrates the film’s breezy sense of humour that draws people into the conversation.

At the same time, though, the film illustrates the pervasiveness of cultural appropriation in so many facets of life. It’s a wake-up call told in an amicable fashion that avoids alienating anyone who might see these examples in their daily habits. Who knows (or cares) what Gloria Steinem would say to that.

Red Fever is now playing in select theatres.

Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

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