Fueled by Adam Sandler Fiasco, Navajo Woman Protests Script’s Stereotypes
When Allie Young responded to a casting call she saw on Facebook, she thought maybe she could turn the experience of being on a movie set into an essay about Hollywood’s portrayal of Native Americans. The 25-year-old aspiring screenwriter had majored in film and media studies at Dartmouth College, and she saw the gig as a film extra—which she’d done one other time, on this year’s George Lopez drama Spare Parts—as an immersive continuation of her academic media studies.
“Going into this project, I was telling myself that this could be an opportunity to, you know, experience what I’ve studied firsthand, and papers I’ve written about,” says Young, a Navajo who was raised in Kirtland, New Mexico, just outside a reservation. “But then, little did I know that it was going to become what it became. I had no idea that was going to happen. It ended up being a walk-off.”
She’s referring to the firestorm that followed after she and about a dozen other Native American actors stormed off the set of The Ridiculous Six in protest of the Adam Sandler comedy’s representation of the Apache culture. The depictions in question, first reported in late April by Indian Country Today Media Network, ranged from derogatory character names like Beaver’s Breath and No Bra to culturally inaccurate depictions of tepees and dialogue that infused Native values with sexual innuendo.
The media coverage quickly spiraled. Within days of the walk-off, excerpts from the Netflix-produced script leaked online, along with video footage of a group of Native American actors arguing with producers after the movie’s cultural adviser—yes, it had hired one—fled the scene in protest.
“He was hired as the cultural adviser, and when he would bring up different concerns, he felt like he wasn’t being heard, or if he did voice a concern, they didn’t listen and they carried on with what they wanted to do anyway,” says Young, who last year cofounded the Survival of the First Voices Festival, which aims to empower Native American youths through art, media, and communication workshops and screenings.
Young’s latest project came last week, when she launched a petition calling for Adam Sandler and Netflix CEO Reed Hastings to remove Native American jokes from the movie’s script. It’s since gathered more than 95,000 signatures from around the world. Having grown up in an area with a history of racially charged violence against Navajo, Young says the petition is motivated by more than just her own academic and professional interest in filmmaking.
“Why I’m pushing so hard and why I’m so passionate about this is for our youth, the indigenous youth,” she says, adding that she’s seen firsthand how stereotypes perpetuated by the media have negatively affected a community already struggling with identity issues and disproportionate rates of alcoholism.
Suicide rates among Native Americans are more than double the general population, and Native teens face the highest rate of suicide of any population group, according to the Center for Native American Youth at the Aspen Institute. Young’s brother committed suicide when he was 17 and she was 18. “He was being picked on because he was Navajo,” Young says. “That’s where my drive comes from.”
Sandler has remained silent about the controversy, including during his appearance on The Late Show With David Letterman on Tuesday night. According to a press statement issued by Netflix spokesperson Felicia Wong, the Native American characters in The Ridiculous Six are intended as a self-aware parody of existing stereotypes. “The movie has ridiculous in the title for a reason: because it is ridiculous. It is a broad satire of Western movies and the stereotypes they popularized, featuring a diverse cast that is not only part of—but in on—the joke,” the statement reads.
But Young says the joke has broader real-life implications. “I can only see some Native girl on the playground and a guy who’s quoting Adam Sandler—and his movies are always quoted—telling a young Native girl that he’d like to put his peepee in her teepee,” she says, referencing a line from the movie. “That’s what I can see coming out of this, and that’s dangerous for our youth.”
It remains to be seen whether the walk-off, a slew of bad press, and a petition backed by nearly 100,000 will have any impact on the release of The Ridiculous Six, which is being produced not by a traditional studio system but by Netflix, a streaming service that relies more on subscribers than on ratings.
The number of actors who stormed off the set was tiny compared with the number of Native Americans who continued working, opting for a paycheck rather than a protest. But Young says the attention to the issue is unprecedented, even if the industry is slow to change. The New York Times weighed in last week with a story about the Hollywood biases faced by Native American actors, including Tantoo Cardinal, a Canadian indigenous actor who appeared in Dances With Wolves.
“Never in history have you heard of a group of Native Americans taking a stand like this,” Young says. “So I’m proud of that. I’m happy to see that there are more actors who do have a voice, like [Native Canadian actor] Adam Beach, who are coming forward in support of the whole controversy.”
Inundated with a blitzkrieg of media and interview requests, Young hasn’t had the time to pen that essay she imagined she’d write when she accepted the gig as an extra on The Ridiculous Six. Then again, she also got a lot more material than she ever bargained for.
“I actually recently bought a journal that I’m going to rewrite everything in, so I’m kind of going through all the stuff that I’ve written, refreshing my memory and reflecting and taking it all in,” she says. “If anything, it’s motivating me more to create [my own] films or shows...about Native Americans today, in the 21st century, where we play doctors and lawyers and not people of the past.”