Photo by Jeremy Valdez

Praise! Hollywood is finally telling a vital Native American story that has nothing to do with a stereotyped Wild West!

As reported by Variety, Angelina Jolie and Escape Artist Productions’ Todd Black and Steve Tisch are executive producing Bright Path: The Jim Thorpe Story, a biopic based on the life of Olympian Jim Thorpe to the big screen. Martin Sensmeier, model and actor best known to mainstream audiences from his role in The Magnficient Seven starring Denzel Washington and Chris Pratt, will star as Thorpe as well as act as executive producer. The script comes from Alex Nibley, Sterlin Harjo and Abraham Taylor, who is also a producer. Josh Acker and Box of Daylight Productions’ Justine Hunt will also executive produce.

Thorpe, a member of the Sac and Fox Nation, won two Olympic gold medals for the U.S. even though his citizenship was unrecognized by the very country he was representing. His rise to fame comes at a critical moment for Native Americans, who were facing cultural genocide. According to Variety, he played baseball for the Major Leagues after the Olympics, as well as professional football for the organization that would eventually become the NFL.

“I’m honored to be working on this project. I have had the privilege of spending time with Bill Thorpe, and will be listening to and guided by the Tribes and the Thorpe family in the making of this film,” said Jolie.

As Variety reports, the film’s producers are receiving tremendous help and support from the Tuolumne Band of Mewuk Indians, the Mohegan Tribe, the Tonto Apache Tribe, the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation, and The Bear River Band of the Rohnerville Rancheria, who are helping finance the film and provide guidance.

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“As Native Americans, it is crucial that we tell our own stories,” said Mohegan chairman Keven Brown “Red Eagle.” “Thorpe’s is a vital one, and Bright Path will break barriers. For the first time, a major motion picture about a Native man, starring a Native man, will be made and released to a broad general audience. We couldn’t be prouder to be a part of it.”

I’m very excited for this film. If I’m using my beginning statement for this article, it’s great that we’re finally seeing a film about a Native American that doesn’t involve the Wild West. Don’t get me wrong; the period of Manifest Destiny is definitely a time Hollywood needs to visit and revisit, especially if they decide to tell the story of America’s push westward in an honest way. But for too long, Hollywood has stereotyped the West, including the Native American. Instead of giving realistic portrayals of Native leaders and tribes, TV and film studios have consistently reproduced the same “savage” stereotype in order for the pioneers, white settlers benefiting from white privilege and a government’s overt campaign to wipe out Indigenous peoples, the heroes.

It’s similar to Hollywood’s oversaturation of films about slavery; of course, stories about slavery need to be told over and over again for future generations to retain knowledge about the past (and its horrors that we hope never to repeat). But when the films seem more about profiting off of black pain like torture porn, then the films miss the point and play into the very privileged and supremacist tendencies they’re trying to warn against. To me, it seems like “Wild West” films are doing more harm than good at this point in time, and until Hollywood decides to come to grips with their portrayals of Native people, perhaps they should leave those films alone.

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In any event, I’ve been waiting on the day when Sensmeier would get his due as a leading man. Of course, one reason is because he’s handsome, but the other, less shallow reason is because he has immense talent that has largely gone untapped by Hollywood. Hollywood’s barrier is something many other Native actors have come up against and have had to deal with in some way or another. Bright Path: The Jim Thorpe Story could be a watershed moment for Native representation on screen.

Perhaps with this film, Sensmeier’s career might go the way of Chadwick Boseman’s, with the opportunity to play many more cultural heroes throughout his career, as well as some superheroes along the way. What would also be great is if Sensmeier’s career can include roles that white actors get a dime a dozen, such as roles in rom-coms, thrillers, horrors, dramas, etc. Sensmeier has the makings of a leading man, and Bright Path: The Jim Thorpe Story could be the project that gets the ball rolling on Hollywood recognizing Native talent.

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