Amidst all the diversity being brought to the forefront of film this year, like in To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before and Crazy Rich Asians, there is one very powerful movie that quietly snuck into the lineup, in all its grace and beauty.
Woman Walks Ahead sets a new standard for history as seen through the eyes of modern film. Directed by Susanna White, it is a fictionalized account of New York painter Catherine Wheldon’s time spent with the great Sitting Bull and the Lakota people during a time of uncertainty. This biographical drama takes place in 1890, just before the Wounded Knee Massacre on the Lakota Pine Ridge Reservation.
It is the job of actors and actresses to not only recite the words they are given but also breathe life into them. To deliver the truth between the lines, and the message we need to hear. Michael Greyeyes (Sitting Bull) and Jessica Chastain (Catherine Wheldon) certainly accomplish this feat, exceeding expectations. Greyeyes’s portrayal of the strong and vigilant Sitting Bull is one that will move you to tears. While encompassing his solid nature as leader of the Lakota nation, Greyeyes brought out the underlying softness, sharp humor, and quiet energy that was Sitting Bull. You truly see the anger, pain, and longing for one man’s people and culture through Greyeye’s eyes. It is an outstanding, unforgettable performance.
Jessica Chastain as Catherine Wheldon is also hard to be forget. Taking on the Wild West as a white single woman was no small task, and she expresses that struggle perfectly. Chastain plays a strong female lead, retaining the elegance and prestige of a metropolitan woman, while still getting across Wheldon’s yearning for adventure and new beginnings. She truly encapsulates the fragile moral balance between war and peace, and chaos and silence.
Throughout the film, Susanna White displayed the amazing natural beauty of the western frontier. Her camera angles and techniques emphasize the gorgeous simplicity of the American landscape, without a single enhancement or frill. The vibrant colors of a setting sun and intense buzzing of prairie insects add a new level to the story being told. The quieter story of life, death, and hope. It is absolutely breathtaking.
The characters portrayed in this film challenge some of the very ideas and principles that pop culture has glorified for so long because, rather than being shown as stereotypes, Sitting Bull and Catherine Weldon are fully formed people; with personalities, desires and fears. Just like everyone else. This is important because Hollywood has a habit of making minority characters into “accessories” or foils to bounce off of the lead. Especially in Western films, where women are rarely seen outside of a brothel or the home, and Indigenous characters all look and act like Tonto from The Lone Ranger. In Woman Walks Ahead, Jessica Chastain’s portrayal of Catherine Wheldon’s unyielding beliefs and unwillingness to be held down, cuts through that sexism like a knife, and Michael Greyeyes’s rich and nuanced performance of the great Hunkpapa leader, Sitting Bull, dares you to trivialize the triumphs and defeats that he endures in the face of incomparable oppression. The genuine relationship the film forms between Catherine Weldon and Sitting Bull fight every expectation that past westerns could throw at them. This is a story built on connection and truth, not popular culture.
The greatest take away from this movie is to support one another. Regardless of the outcome, kindness, patience, and love are never to be forsaken. The power of just being a friend can help someone in ways you may never get to see. In an interview with BUILD Series, Jessica Chastain said, “Catherine Wheldon, you know, she wasn’t a savior. She couldn’t save anyone, but how could she be of service? How could he be of service to her? How could these two people who really didn’t have agency over their lives, find a place in this nation?”
This is a story about brave people rising up against a timeless fight. Being a true friend, without pretense, and being who you are, in the face of adversity. This is a movie worth every second of your time.”
Featured image provided by Woman Walks Ahead Official Trailer A24