Our reservation is beautiful this morning--it's a good day to be indigenous," crows a disk jockey at the beginning of Smoke Signals, the first commercial feature film entirely written, directed and acted by Native Americans. It's also a good time to be Sherman Alexie, the film's 31-year-old screenwriter, who previously penned eight books of verse and three highly acclaimed works of fiction, and is now bringing his contemporary tribal sensibilities to Hollywood.
In movies and on television, Indians have traditionally been cast as powerful shamans, ruthless savages or downtrodden drunks living in tar-paper shacks. Not in Alexie's world. Throughout Smoke Signals--which he adapted from his 1993 short-story collection The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven--he doesn't just challenge stereotypes, he pokes fun at them. In his tale of two young dudes who leave "the rez" on a road trip of personal enlightenment, the characters ruminate about everything from Dances with Wolves to a native staple known as fry bread. They also shoot hoops, eat at Denny's and conjure mystical visions. "Sure we have different specific cultural customs," says Alexie, "but we also read Stephen King and watch ER like everyone else."
A big (6-ft. 2-in.) man with a soft lisp and a gift for gab, Alexie is an enrolled member of the Spokane tribe, though he also speaks proudly of his father's Coeur d'Alene heritage. Chatting in a plush Beverly Hills, Calif., hotel lobby a week before the movie's release, he's clearly stoked at the prospect that it might crack open doors for other budding Native auteurs. "Right away, we've given the whole idea of Indian filmmakers credibility," he says, beaming at the notion that Smoke Signals could do for his people what Spike Lee's She's Gotta Have It did for African Americans. "Spike didn't necessarily get films made as much as he inspired filmmakers to believe in themselves. That's what's going to happen here. These 13-year-old Indian kids who've been going crazy with their camcorders will finally see the possibilities."
Bankrolled by a Seattle multimedia firm, Smoke Signals was shot on a $1.7 million budget after being developed at Robert Redford's Sundance Institute, which sponsors a program for fledgling Native American filmmakers. Though he had been approached by producers eager to adapt his works to the screen, Alexie bided his time until he found an Indian director with respect for the material. Enter Chris Eyre, a 28-year-old Cheyenne-Arapaho director of shorts and documentaries, who read Alexie's book and cold-called him for a meeting. Their film, later acquired by Miramax for close to $3 million, went on to win two awards at this year's Sundance Festival; it opens in Los Angeles and New York City this week and nationwide over the next few weeks. "Obviously the movie has no stars, but it offers new ideas and a fresh voice," says Miramax chief Harvey Weinstein, hoping it gets the same strong word of mouth as his previous sleeper hits Emma and Trainspotting. Alexie has even greater aspirations: he thinks it could turn into another Full Monty.