Recovering the Lost History of Indigenous Moviemaking
Until recently, most depictions of indigenous people in films and documentaries were of the stereotypical “cowboys versus Indians” variety or tales of the “vanishing Indians” who once proudly roamed the plains of early America. A common misconception about the early years of Hollywood is that indigenous people were actors or extras but never writers, directors, or heads of studios. Joanna Hearne, an associate professor of English and director of the Digital Storytelling Program, is in the process of shattering those misconceptions as she works on her third book-length study of Native American media history.
Hearne’s upcoming book, Chickasaw Hollywood: The Fox Brothers and the Studio System, 1914–1954, focuses on the history of the first indigenous family of writer–directors in Hollywood.
“In terms of early Hollywood, the conversation has been about images of indigenous peoples--as in Westerns--and not so much about indigenous people working at levels of creative control behind the camera, as writers, producers, and directors. There were very few Native American people in Hollywood who had positions of power, beyond work as performers or cultural consultants,” Hearne says.
Her book explores the history of three brothers, citizens of the Chickasaw Nation, who were born in northern Texas and southern Oklahoma. Finis Fox, the oldest brother, wrote scripts and did some producing. The middle brother, Jay Fox, took the stage name of Edwin Carewe and became a producer and director, and he even owned a production company (Tec-Art Studios) across Melrose Avenue from Paramount. Carewe directed more than 50 films between 1914 and 1934 and helped launch the careers of Gary Cooper and Delores del Rio, the first Latina movie star in Hollywood. Hearne says the two older brothers’ careers did not survive the transition to sound in 1929, but the youngest brother, Wallace Fox, was just getting started. A director and producer, Wallace Fox worked in Hollywood through the 1930s and ’40s and into the transition to television, making Gene Autry TV specials until retiring in the mid-’50s.
“From the silent films of 1914 all the way to the early days of television, these brothers were working in the industry, and that’s really extraordinary. It’s a story that hasn’t been told,” Hearne says.
One of the Fox brothers’ most successful films was an adaptation of the popular 1884 novel Ramona, about a forbidden mixed-race romance in early California. Edwin Carewe’s 1928 film adaptation starring Dolores del Rio was a global hit that portrayed Indian characters in surprisingly sympathetic ways. While the film’s depictions were romanticized, its politics favored tribal land rights. After the youngest Fox brother retired, however, there were no Native-directed feature film dramas in national distribution until 1998, when Smoke Signals became the first contemporary film written, produced, directed and acted by Native Americans. In fact, Hearne says the last two decades have seen a flowering of global indigenous cinema, including a new body of feature dramas, shorts, documentaries, and experimental films. Indigenous media studies have followed closely, with growing scholarly and general interest in the early history of indigenous filmmaking.
“The value of this project is the way it opens up questions—how did the Fox brothers navigate Hollywood’s established studio system? Can we identify any distinctively Chickasaw political or cultural orientations in their films? Another value is the archival recovery of an unknown history. It’s this fascinating portrait of an incredibly multi-ethnic early Hollywood,” Hearne says. In December, Hearne was awarded a year-long research fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities to complete the book.