While her name will receive top billing when “Woman Walks Ahead” hits cinemas, Oscar-nominated actress Jessica Chastain was eager to avoid playing a white savior in the tale of two disenfranchised people finding hope and resistance together.
The film, which had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sunday night, tells the true story of Caroline Weldon, who was also known as Catherine. Weldon traveled alone from New York to the Dakota Territory, ostensibly to paint a portrait of Lakota Sioux tribal chief Sitting Bull.
“In the 1880s a woman couldn’t save anyone,” Chastain said on Monday, adding, “Sitting Bull is the one rallying the people and speaking to the people.”
Michael Greyeyes, the Canadian Plains Cree actor who played Sitting Bull, said Chastain even altered a scene in which she was to sit next to Sitting Bull while he addresses his people, moving herself to the background.
“That speaks to her generosity, that speaks to her political consciousness about white narratives within indigenous stories,” he said.
The film portrays Sitting Bull in the days leading up to his 1890 murder and the subsequent massacre at Wounded Knee, working with the painter to convince his people to reject a land treaty amid a U.S. military campaign to subdue the native population.
“I see it as an alternative Western,” director Susanna White said. “It’s offering people a voice who were a part of that story whose stories were never told.”
The film was shot while protesters camped in the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota fighting the planned Dakota Access pipeline, reminding cast and crew of the ongoing battle to protect indigenous land.
“The concerns of the dominant culture remain that we must consume, we must take, and we will clear the lands that we desire through starvation and violence,” Greyeyes said.
Chastain, whose production company aims to amplify marginalized voices and who works on at least one film a year with a female director, said she was drawn to the tale of a woman consigned to historical footnote.
“I want to put out stories in the world that hopefully will be little seeds of inspiration,” she said. “For young girls to know that, ‘Yes, there are women before you and they did incredible things, and you can too,'” she said.
“You have to put your money where your mouth is. You can’t just talk about it, you have to do whatever you can to create change.”