The best way to truly understand Susanna White’s Woman Walks Ahead is to consider it more as a fictionalized and romanticized account of a moment in painter and Native American rights advocate Catherine Weldon’s life and less of a historical record smattered in truth. New York painter Weldon (Jessica Chastain) travels to the Dakota region in 1889, fiercely intent on painting a portrait of Chief Sitting Bull (Michael Greyeyes).
Recently—and happily—widowed, Catherine’s wealth gives her the freedom to travel where she wills. Arriving at the end of the train line, she is unknowledgeable and hardly prepared for the complicated politics of the region, quickly making enemies of the bigoted townspeople and military officials. By contrast, the Weldon of history arrived with her twelve year-old-son in tow, propelled by fierce determination as a member of the National Indian Defense Association to help the Lakota Sioux protect their land from federal annexation through the Dawes Act. Our Weldon of fiction, however, is apart of no such organization and, when she finds Sitting Bull dejectedly farming potatoes, she offers him $1,000 for her to paint his portrait. Sitting Bull only needs pep-talk-like motivation from Weldon to reignite the fire of resistance within him (which is weirdly self-serving).
“The only battle I’ve ever fought is insignificance.”
Greyeyes is exceptional; the intelligence and dignity with which he portrays Sitting Bull is an absolute highlight of the film. He is simultaneously powerful and delicate as he portrays a man wrestling with his violent past, his grief for his people and the land that has been stolen from them, and his fear of the future that creeps towards them through the burning heat. Chastain’s performance, as always, exudes significance and magnetism. So much so that even when her clearly put-on New York (and maybe partially Swiss?) accent falters, her tactful and graceful embodiment of the bright-eyed and determined Weldon draw the viewer closer. The combined performances of Greyeyes and Chastain are wonderful and hold enough power to push through the dull stretches of the script.
The script is overall vague and unfocused, grazing over significant historical inaccuracies with weirdly flirtatious and unnecessary moments, which would fit much more decidedly in a romance novel. The film suffers greatly from its loose grip on history. Portraying Weldon as being solely responsible for the resistance to the Dawes Act and forgiving the role she had in the massacre at Wounded Knee that followed. These problems are not fatal, however infuriating they may be, and White’s direction does help to propel the script along the best that it can. The faults of the script are partially redeemed by the unbelievably breathtaking cinematography of Michael Eley. The striking vistas of North Dakota and New Mexico add invaluable depth and emotion to the film.
Despite its blatant historical inaccuracies and the issues with this story being told through the eyes of a white woman, I think this is an important story to be telling. Just a few years ago, a film like this—with a lead actress and telling a Native American story with many indigenous cast members—never would have been made. Woman Walks Ahead is beautiful and easy to thoroughly enjoy if you ignore the mistakes of the script and storyline. It does leave me wondering what the film would have been like if it told the complete truth. Would it have been a better story?