One thing is crystal clear from 20th Century Fox’s new blockbuster hit The Revenant: settler lives matter. Hugh Glass, the 19th century American frontiersman played by Leonardo DiCaprio, is so incredibly immune to death that he rises from his own grave after having been torn to shreds by a grizzly at the film’s outset. The signature series of shots that every spectator is sure to remember – DiCaprio’s own breath fogging up the camera lens as he stares down its chamber – constitutes such an essential element of the film’s aesthetic that one is led to believe that Leonardo’s own life (or maybe just his Oscar) is on the line. My claim, then, is that The Revenant is first and foremost a story of settler survival and is therefore not without its settler colonial stakes.
Throughout the film, all we know of Glass’ history is that he has found himself an Indigenous partner with whom he shares a child and from whom he has acquired enough hunting and language skills to become the source of survival for fellow fur trappers. Without a whisper of Glass’ own family history – the circumstances of his arrival on Turtle Island, or the reasons for his having “married in” – the terms of Glass’ colonial complicity go unchallenged along with his infantile innocence.
This colonial narrative technique provides a classic example of what Tuck and Yang (2012) have termed “settler moves to innocence.” In the settler colonial context, they define these self-confessionary strategies as an “attempt to relieve the settler of feelings of guilt or responsibility without giving up land or power or privilege, without having to change much at all” (p. 10). One such move that they identify is that of settler nativism, embodied most emblematically in what Vine Deloria Jr. would term the “Indian-grandmother complex” (1969), whereby a settler conjures up a claim of Indian ancestry in order to come to terms with (aka: altogether avoid) the colonial contradictions of their own settler identity.
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