By Graham Fuller
Songs My Brothers Taught Me
Dir. Chloé Zhao, U.S., Kino Lorber
Songs My Brothers Taught Me, Chinese-American filmmaker Chloé Zhao’s persuasively melancholy socialist realist drama, centers on the circumscribed lives of young Lakotas. Twelfth-grader Johnny Winters (John Reddy) and his eleven-year-old sister, Jashaun (Jashaun St. John), live with their alcoholic mother, Lisa (Irene Bedard), on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. They thus inhabit the poorest region in the country (maximum median annual income $3,500), where infant mortality rates, unemployment, teenage suicides, and instances of alcoholism (eight in ten families), cancer, diabetes, and heart disease dwarf the national average. Life expectancy is 48 years for men, 52 for women. Little wonder Johnny plans to accompany his girlfriend, Aurelia (Taysha Fuller), when, divine providence in her backpack, she leaves the reservation for a Los Angeles college with plans for a future as a lawyer.
First-time feature director Zhao resists courting our sympathy by presenting the Winters’ life as squalid, though many Pine Ridge families live without heating, clean water, or sanitation. The three live not uncomfortably in one of the reservation’s uniformly drab single story houses. Mom cooks in the kitchen; the kids each have a room. They get by on what Johnny makes fixing cars and trafficking booze, which incurs the wrath of ruthless bootleggers when he encroaches on their patch. (Pine Ridge’s alcohol ban was technically lifted in 2013.) Docudrama sequences bookend the film, which proceeds, compellingly, as a vérité-style montage of mostly quotidian incidents in the vein of the landmark Ken Loach television drama Cathy Come Home (1965). The opening, which shows Johnny working with horses, establishes his connection with his ancestral roots and supplies a metaphor, through his brief voiceover narration, for his fear of demoralization. “If you’re gonna keep on running a horse, you’re gonna break its spirit,” he says. It’s better to leave some badness or wildness in horses so they can “survive out here.” The older white woman Angie (Eleonore Hendricks), whose boyfriend supplies Johnny with bootleg booze, notices how beautiful he is on horseback, presaging their later idyll swimming in the Badlands.
Played by nonprofessional actors from Pine Ridge, Johnny, Jashaun, and their embittered older brother, Cody (Justin Reddy), who is serving time, are three of the 25 children fathered by the unseen rodeo bull rider Carl Winters on his nine wives. Early in the film, a cop calls on Lisa to tell her that Carl has died in a fire; Johnny and Jashaun are less grief-stricken than their mother because Carl was an absentee, alcoholic parent who gave more time to his other families, though Jashaun is sufficiently moved to retrieve singed papers of his from the blackened remains of his house. (The actress was filmed visiting the site of her own house after it was destroyed by fire; her family gave Zhao permission to incorporate the devastation in the film and she rewrote the script accordingly.) A benefit of Carl’s passing is that his funeral brings Johnny and Jashaun into the orbit of their stepsiblings (brothers primarily), who offer counsel and friendship as the crucial blood ties thicken.
Carl’s death and Cody’s imprisonment intensify Johnny’s growing dilemma over whether he should leave the reservation, which becomes the crux of the film. His decision to have an affair with Angie or not is a question less of him betraying Aurelia than allowing himself to be seduced by a woman who, though sincere and vulnerable herself, represents the insidious capitalist temptations that have lured many Lakotas from their traditions. Meanwhile, Jashaun’s affinity for rap seemingly stems from her gleaning, consciously or not, that as an expression of a minority group’s pride hip-hop resonates with the Lakota culture she esteems (her boy-crazy, 13-year-old friend, in contrast, has yielded to mall culture, despite there being no mall). Seeking a father-cum-brother figure after she’s learned of Carl’s death and Johnny’s imminent departure, Jashuan becomes assistant and accountant to Travis Lone Hill (the Pine Ridge poet-artist playing a version of himself). A young father just released from prison, who supports himself as a tattooist and clothing designer and styles himself as a hip-hop performer, he is—save for the film’s one sage-like grandmother—the character most spiritually connected to the Lakota past.
Yet he doesn’t know all the facts. When Jashaun is helping Travis pack away his wares one day, she asks him why the number seven figures so prominently on his designs. One reason, he says, is that “Crazy Horse said everything seemed to have ended at Wounded Knee, but it will all begin again with the seventh generation—that’s you.” The talismanic war leader of the Oglala Lakota, Crazy Horse was assassinated in 1877. Thirteen years later, the 7th Cavalry’s massacre of Minneconjou and Hunkpapa Lakota at Wounded Knee Creek on Pine Ridge ended the resistance of the Sioux and the other Plains Indian tribes to white domination. Travis’s comment is therefore disorienting, to Western ears at least.
Assuming Zhao was aware of the inaccuracy and puzzled by it, I wondered why she had permitted it and posed the question to her. Zhao replied: “The thing is, most people on the reservation are not scholars of their own history. I sometimes find that the way many of them, especially the elders, tell stories about their history are not in the western, linear and fact-checking way. I knew Crazy Horse didn’t live to see the Wounded Knee massacre, but it didn’t meant he didn’t predict the killings, the westernization of his people, the comings of cars, planes and world wars, the spiritual darkness our modern world would experience. It felt like something Travis’s character would say in that moment to comfort Jashaun.”Although the seventh generation rebirth (for all peoples) is usually attributed to the Oglala holy man Black Elk, Zhao added, many Lakotas told her that the prophecy derives from the wisdom of Crazy Horse, one of Black Elk’s second cousins.
That prophecy hasn’t yet borne fruit. That it’s unlikely to in the near future doesn’t undermine the hope Travis is offering Jashaun. Reinforced rather than diluted by her taste for hip hop, her powerful self-identification as a Lakota influences Johnny. Though he admits “Jashaun sees things about this place I don’t,” the call of the horses, the lunar Badlands, and the lightning-zapped Plains are not something he can or wants to wish away.