Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee; Roots 30th Anniversary Edition


Dee Brown’s emotionally charged historical document Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee is the sort of book that looks great on any shelf—bringing with it a sense of enlightenment and knowledge many people are sadly lacking. And that’s if you don’t even bother to read the book. But if you do read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, you will be exposed to such a profound glimpse at the history of this country, one so vastly differing than what is taught in schools, that you will never see things the same way again. Sadly, the same can’t really be said about the made-for-HBO film that serves as a very loose adaptation of Brown’s book.

The bulk of Brown’s 400-plus page book spans six decades, but he also manages to cram in an additional three or four hundred years of history, cursory though it may be, within Bury My Heart’s first chapter. It is important to know this, because the film that calls itself Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, which runs at just over two hours long, only covers a little under twenty years, maintaining a very narrow focus, especially given the broad scope of the book. Of course, it may not be all that fair to compare the movie so closely to the book, because they are two completely different mediums. And perhaps if the film were simply better, and managed to stand on its own as a work of great merit and achievement, I might be more forgiving. But it isn’t, I’m not, and that’s just how the story goes.

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee intertwines two narratives that follow the lives of two very different Lakota Sioux men. First there is the legendary Sioux leader Sitting Bull (August Schellenberg), who history has turned into a cultural archetype. Long regarded as the last of the great Native American leaders to surrender to the white man, Sitting Bull is, for the uneducated, little more than a historical enigma that conjures up an image of the stoic Indian defiantly defending his people from the greedy palefaces.

At its most ambitious, Bury My Heart attempts to paint a complex portrait of Sitting Bull as a flawed leader whose personal convictions and hubris do his tribe—the last to surrender to the government—more harm than good. And considering the fact that few films have ever portrayed Sitting Bull as anything more than a one-dimensional redskin villain or a grand, noble savage not unlike Iron Eyes Cody shedding a tear at the side of the road over thoughtless litterbugs, what the film tries to do is worthy of a tip of the hat. Unfortunately, Daniel Giat’s screenplay is sadly lacking, and only on a few occasions manages to deliver the needed depth of character or deftness of finely crafted dialog required to make this movie anything that remotely resembles memorable.

The second narrative of the film revolves around Charles Eastman (Adam Beach), a Lakota Sioux taken from his tribe when he was young, and raised to think of himself as a white man. Privileged with a great education, Eastman becomes a doctor, falls in love with nubile white woman Elaine Goodale (Anna Paquin), and returns to the reservation to help other Indians assimilate into white culture, paving the way for coming settlers that want much of the land the Lakota occupy. But when Eastman sees the injustices that are being heaped upon the people he once renounced, he becomes torn, leading to a crisis of conscious that in another film could have been the stuff of great compelling drama (see Dances With Wolves).

Eastman grows more and more disturbed by the deplorable conditions he witnesses on the reservation, while tensions begin to mount as pressure is placed upon the Sioux to give up their land. All of this, as history has shown us, leads to the massacre at Wounded Knee, one of the more pivotal moments of the American Indian history. Sadly, the magnitude of Wounded Knee, as well as General Custer’s humiliating defeat at Little Big Horn, which serves as the film’s key opening moment, are never conveyed by the film. Perhaps if those crucial battles were handled in a more visceral way, it might have redeemed what really amounts to a deficit of emotional resonance in the film. Director Yves Simoneau relies more on tracking dolly shots, crane movement, and manipulative music cues than anything that could pass for emotion.

On their own, the stories of Charles Eastman and Sitting Bull (not to mention all the others chronicled in the book Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee), are enough to warrant their own individual mini-series. And therein lays one of the key fundamental flaws of the film. Knowing that there was no way to turn all of Brown’s book into a single film, someone decided to just adapt part of it. But the problem is that even though the producers stripped down the book considerably, they still bit of more than they could chew, and the resulting film is a hit-and-miss bag of tricks that is never as compelling or emotionally charged as it fancies itself to be. Yes, there are some great moments, but there is nothing exceptional to be found, making this more of a missed opportunity than anything else. It’s also worth noting that Eastman, while being a pivotal part of the film, is not part of the book’s narrative, calling into question the very integrity of this adaptation. At some point, very early in the film, the question comes up of why did they even bother calling this film Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.

Perhaps if Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee had been a mini-series it could have come closer to conveying the historical importance of the book. Given the opportunity to tell the stories recounted in Brown’s book outside the constraints and confines of a two hour film, Bury My Heart may have had the opportunity to change the world in much the same way the adaptation of another important historical text did three decades ago.


It is rare that any one television program can lay claim to having changed the world, but that is exactly what Roots did when it aired over 30 years ago on ABC. I was in the third grade, and my mother, in what was either infinite wisdom or blind naïveté allowed me to stay up way past my bed time on a Sunday night to watch the first episode of the television mini-series based on Alex Haley’s Pultizer Prize winning book. The next morning at school, I told all the kids about the show that I watched. None of their parents had let them watch Roots, so I, in one of my earliest roles as both a storyteller and a critic, acted out as much of the first episode as possible on the playground.

The next day, before I could get to the playground and tell the other kids about what happened to Kunta Kinte on the ship, or how he had been sold into slavery, or how he was whipped until he called himself Toby, my teacher pulled me aside and told me that she didn’t think it was appropriate for me to be watching Roots, and that I shouldn’t tell the other kids about what my mother was so foolishly allowing me to watch. That night, when I told my mother what my teacher said, my dear sweet mommy said, and I quote, “Fuck that bitch.” And that is just part of how Roots helped to mold and shape me into the person that I am today.

Spanning over 100 years in the life of one family, Roots begins in West Africa in 1750 with the birth of a child named Kunta Kinte. Seventeen years later, Kunta (LeVar Burton) is abducted by slavers, brought across the ocean to America, where he is sold into slavery. But the epic tale of Roots merely begins with Kunta Kinte, as the mini-series moves through the decades it follows his daughter Kizzy (Leslie Uggams), her son Chicken George (Ben Vereen), and his son Tom (George Stanford Brown), as they struggle with the indignity of slavery, eventually being set free after the Civil War. There is, of course, so much more to the story, but to go into great detail of the plot points and characters would never begin to do justice to the grand scope of the series.

The sum total of each generation’s tale is a brilliant television experience that surpasses anything ever produced, offering a unique glimpse at American history. But part of the triumph of Roots is that no episode, or the generation it chronicles, is any less compelling than another. Roots works not only as a complete series of episodes, but each episode works on its own as well.

At the time of its original airing, Roots was a phenomenon—the highest rated television program in the history of the medium—with much of the country glued to their TV sets for eight consecutive nights. What made the show successful, beyond the writing and the acting, was that it helped to reveal the truth behind the often rose-colored version of history that is spoon fed to America. Sure, we all knew that there were slaves in this country, but that knowledge seldom went past the dismissive recognition of “yes, we know it happened, but let’s move on to another topic.” The reality of slavery—the brutal honest truth of what it really meant in terms of human beings, in what blacks were forced to endure, and in what many whites inflicted upon blacks—was something that was collectively glossed over in this country. Slavery was a gaping, festering wound, riddled with an infection that afflicted every person living in this country. It effected how blacks were viewed and treated, exacting a heavy toll of shattered self worth on multiple generations of slaves and their descendants, while simultaneously infecting many white people with the diseased notion that their skin color made them superior. But Roots, in its own unique way, helped to set in motion the sort of dialog and awareness needed to begin the healing process.

More than anything, Roots did something that most of the chapters of most of the history books failed to do. It made slavery about human beings, not property. It allowed black people to finally see themselves and be seen in a way other than as the dehumanizing footnotes American history had portrayed them to be. For me, as child, it forever changed how I would see myself, my family, and the world around me.

Recently re-released on DVD for its 30th anniversary, the four-disc collection of Roots is one of those sets that really should be in every household, and watched at least every few years.



One Response to “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee; Roots 30th Anniversary Edition”


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