50 Movies for 50 States: Week 43 – South Dakota, Film – Skins

Week 43 – South Dakota

Skins (2002), produced by First Look Entertainment, Grandview Pictures and Starz! Encore Entertainment, directed by Chris Eyre, written by Adrian C. Louis (novel) and Jennifer D. Lyne, with Eric Schweig, Graham Greene and Gary Farmer, cinematography by Stephen Kazmierski, original music by BC Smith

Fact: About .8 percent of the United States’ population are American Indian (or Native American, if you prefer.) Based on this statistic, there are very few American Indian filmmakers and probably even less American Indian filmmakers making movies about American Indians.

Chris Eyre is probably the most successful filmmaker to be of American Indian descent making movies today. A Portland, Oregon native, Eyre is a member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes. His first film, Smoke Signals, came out in 1998 and was a hit at Sundance. Critics described Smoke Signals with words like “poignant”, “funny” and “soulful.” For his follow-up film, Eyre would take things in a whole other direction.

Skins, not to be confused with the popular BBC and MTV teen drama, is gritty and bleak. There’s humor to be found but it’s scarce. Laughing during Skins is a lot like laughing at a joke in a eulogy – just a chance to come up for a quick breather before it’s back to depths of despair.

The movie’s setting is the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, a chunk of land on the border of South Dakota and Nebraska set aside for the original natives of this United States, roughly the size of both Rhode Island and Delaware combined.

Pine Ridge has the unhappy distinction of being the poorest Indian reservation in the United States, which carries a whole host of related issues. Unemployment there is at about 80 to 85 percent. Pine Ridge no industry to speak of. Although a $20 million hotel and casino was built on the reservation in 2007, I personally – being the lily-white cracker that I am — wouldn’t gamble there because of the reservation’s serious crime issues. In the mid 1970s, the murder rate at Pine Ridge was nine times that of infamous “murder capital” Detroit, Michigan. That’s a whopping 170 murders per 100,000 people. Because of this and various other factors, the life expectancy at Pine Ridge was once one of the lowest in the Western Hemisphere.

I could go on and on, but you can read about it yourself on Wikipedia, which gives a pretty detailed overview of Pine Ridge’s sad existence.

Skins is the story of two brothers. One, a cop with Pine Ridge’s tribal council, Rudy Yellow Lodge. The other, a drunk, Mogie. It’s no surprise that, in both Skins and real life, the people who live at Pine Ridge often turn to booze to help them forget their problems. All “drunken Indian” stereotyping aside, alcoholism is a prevailing issue at Pine Ridge and although Pine Ridge is supposed to be a “dry” reservation, its residents only have to make a short trip across the Nebraska border to obtain liquid refreshment.

While Mogie spends his days in a stupor — no thanks to his enabling brother Rudy who happily provides him with cash for drinky-drinks – Rudy fights a losing battle against Pine Ridge’s criminal element. One day while investigating a murder scene, Rudy finds himself in pursuit of a suspect when he trips on a rock and sees a vision of a Native American trickster spirit. Rudy interprets this as a sign to turn to vigilantism.

A few days later, with his face blackened and wearing a pair of pantyhose on his head, Rudy hunts down a pair of teenagers he suspects were responsible for the murder he had been investigating and smashes in their kneecaps with a baseball bat. They soon confess to the crime.

Happy with the success of his first outing, Rudy “Big Chief Pantyhose Head” makes his next mission to burn down the liquor store across the border in White Clay, Nebraska, which has been profiteering off of Pine Ridge’s thirst for drink. Whoops! Rudy sets the fire unaware that Mogie is passed out on the buildings roof. The good news: Mogie suffers serious injuries, but survives. The bad news: Not long after surviving the liquor store fire, Mogie learns that he is dying from cirrhosis of the liver. Are you having fun yet?

Skins is not an uplifting movie. Not in any way, shape or form. That’s not a criticism, just an observation.

And while there are many movies that fall under the category of “downers” that I could probably list among my favorites, something about Skins just didn’t work for me. Maybe because the movie seemed a little confused about what it wants to be. It starts out with documentary footage, giving the impression that it’s going to be a stripped-down, no-nonsense true-to-life social drama. Then, when Rudy finds the dead body, it seems like it’s going to be a murder mystery. Then, it’s a revenge story. Then, it’s a melodrama. I prefer the generic “indie drama” label – albeit one with identity issues. At least Skins never pretends to be a comedy. That would take a good deal of imagination. Did I mention that Skins is depressing?

Still, there’s a lot to like here. Both leads are impressive. Eric Schweig, who plays Rudy, and Graham Greene, who plays Mogie, are both convincing in their roles. You get a sense that there’s real compassion and affection between the two brothers, despite their glaring differences. I imagine it must be refreshing for Schweig and Greene, both Native American actors, to be able to play roles that don’t involve slapping on war paint and a headdress.

It’s refreshing as a viewer to see a film that deals with Native Americans in a non-romanticized light. Traditionally, American Indians have been portrayed in cinema as either savages or sages. Here, they’re people dealing trying to make the best of the bad situation they’re in. While there’s a certain degree of mysticism in Skins, the glorious past never trumps the cold hard reality of the present. While the movie never delves as deep into the present-day struggles of reservation life as I would have liked to have seen, it at least peaked my interest so that – when the movie was over – I found myself seeking out more information about Pine Ridge.

At the very least, you should check out Skins because it’s a movie about Native Americans by a Native American. It’s a perspective that rarely gets heard in film and probably one that we could all benefit from hearing.

Other movies filmed in South Dakota: Dances With Wolves, of course.

Next week: Tennessee! There’s no business like show business…


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