Navigating from childhood to adolescence is a universal challenge. Award-winning documentary filmmaker Tracey Deer’s debut “Beans” (“Anne with an E”, “Mohawk Girls”) reveals just how more intense this process can be for a young Aboriginal girl.
The United States’ image of Canada is often one of racial and ethnic harmony. “Beans” shows that Canada has its own history of racism and xenophobia.
But the macro image of the problem is not what matters in “Beans”. To communicate the impact of this racism and xenophobia, particularly illustrated by the Oka crisis in 1990 in Quebec, Deer turns the camera on Tekehentahkwa, 12 years old, who is called “Beans”, instead of the expected documentary route . In 1990, the Mohawk community came together for a 78-day standoff to fight a proposed golf course on their ancestral land.
What happens in “Beans” is how real people were affected by the incident. For Beans (played by Kiawentiio, “Rutherford Falls”), his younger sister Ruby (Violah Beauvais) and parents Lily (Rainbow Dickerson) and Kania’Tariio (Joel Montgrand), this crisis is shaking their world. Typical coming of age stories focus on a loss of innocence; they rarely explore the specific loss of racial and cultural innocence. What happens when young people of color find out that a dominant white culture doesn’t love them the same as their white peers? This message is even more glaring when these young people of color fight for land that belongs to their ancestors.
This is exactly the dilemma the “beans” approach, but never in the judgmental, kumbaya way we have become accustomed to. The hurt and confusion lead Beans down a troubling path when she encounters young people a few years older than her who act out their rage. Unlike Beans, her friend April (Paulina Alexis, “Reservation Dogs”) does not come from a family that offers love and protection. Therefore, she has a wall that Beans is determined to overcome, no matter how much abuse April inflicts on her. With April and her band – including her brother Hank (D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai, also of “Reservation Dogs”), paying inappropriate attention to Beans – we see a tightrope some young people walk between good and evil. .
At times, it seems doubtful that Beans will survive without seriously damaging his future prospects. This is all the more important as Beans is struggling to attend the “prestigious” and predominantly white Queens Heights Academy. His precocious naivety underscores the fact that before the standoff, Beans had never even considered the obstacles life might throw at him just because of his Indigenous background.
To Deer’s credit, she doesn’t shy away from the cruelty the elderly and white people demonstrate to the community, including children. (Archival footage of the actual incident supports more than the portrait of Deer.) While Beans may not be a real person, we know she isn’t entirely fictional either. These events have taken place and we feel the tribute they make not only to Beans, but also to his entire family and community.
As the crisis unfolds and deepens, we feel Beans’ frustration as well as Ruby’s fear. As fearless as their pregnant mother, Lily, seems to be throughout the film, even she has a breaking point in the face of such unwarranted cruelty. And this cruelty includes not only harsh words, but also outbursts of violence with the intent to do harm. Food insecurity is also becoming a problem as the stalemate continues. The dead end illustrates the very real sacrifices and compromises people of color make constantly when they dare to assert their humanity.
“Beans” is not a perfect movie. It is at first slow to enter its path, and sometimes, Marie Davignon’s camera reveals the uncertainty in the story. Visually, the integration of archival news footage does not always match the newly shot footage. But these relatively minor flaws don’t detract from the film’s power and relevance. Lead actor Kiawentiio, in particular, makes wise choices to convey Beans’ innocence as well as his potential for corruption.
For the cinema to convey a wide range of experiences, a wide range of people must have access to tell their own stories. And while the point may be missed in the throes of the critical racial theory controversy in the United States, ugliness and bigotry are an integral part of human history. Deer, a rare filmmaker of Mohawk descent, portrayed in “Beans” the hope and love that help people thrive in the face of such hatred.
“Beans” opens in US theaters and On Demand on November 5th.