Mekko tells a story quite unlike anything you'll see in Hollywood. It features people usually made into caricatures by an industry that doesn't understand them. The new movie, from director Sterlin Harjo, tells the story of one community made up of homeless Native Americans in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
If that doesn't sound unusual, it should. Mekko is telling the kind of story that goes unrepresented in Hollywood today — and it's for that reason that Mekko must be noticed.
Harjo decided to tell the fictional story of Mekko, the fictional story of a man on parole after 19 years, because it was a chance to talk about a community that's often forgotten. "I like telling stories about people that most of society forgets," Harjo told Mic via email. "I'm from a community and a people that most of society forgets."
Stories featuring Native characters are incredibly rare. Even those that do feature such characters aren't told by Native voices. Dances With Wolves, perhaps the most famous example of this, was directed by Kevin Costner. Mekko is a rare instance of someone in that community being able to tell their own tale.
"I like telling stories about people without a voice. I like showing true characters in communities like the one depicted in the film," Harjo said. "I also wanted to make a film that felt immediate, something where I could take a camera and actors out into the streets and create a world."
When asked if he thought the story in Mekko was important, Harjo's answer was unsure, but diplomatic. "I don't know if it's important," he said. "It's important to me."
The memory of Native actors walking off the set of Adam Sandler's new movie is not a distant one. As Indian Country Daily reported at the time, Sandler's The Ridiculous Six featured "Native women's names such as Beaver's Breath and No Bra, an actress portraying an Apache woman squatting and urinating while smoking a peace pipe, and feathers inappropriately positioned on a teepee."
Such treatment of Native culture is par for the course in Hollywood, unfortunately. Think of Johnny Depp, a white actor, playing the Native American Tonto in The Lone Ranger. As Harjo told Mic, "Having Native characters in tentpole films does nothing financially for them. Unless a Native character fits their narrative of what a Native American is — buckskin and feathers — then they aren't interested."
This is why a movie like Mekko is vital. Native stories should be told, and told through their own voices and performances. That way, the stories can be not only true but resonate on a higher plane. Only someone who has lived the experiences can capture the nuances and create a true slice of life. Native American communities — like the one in Mekko — deserve that treatment.
Hollywood, sadly, won't pay attention. It's as Harjo says: The industry follows the money. Yet every independent film featuring Native talent both in front of and behind the camera matters. Each gets us closer to a day where Native stories can be told widely, accurately and appropriately. The more independent films like Mekko, the more likely it is Hollywood will notice. It won't come easy, but studios should, and must, learn.
Mekko debuted at the Los Angeles Film Festival on June 12 and awaits distribution. In the meantime, watch the trailer below: