History becomes “her”story (with a few factual tweaks) in Susanna White’s Woman Walks Ahead, which introduces audiences to Catherine Weldon (Jessica Chastain), a determined portrait artist who defies convention — and the U.S. government — in the late 1880s to fulfill her dream of painting legendary warrior Sitting Bull and learning about the Lakota people (who are part of the Sioux tribes). Chastain delivers another excellent performance as Weldon, who ultimately finds more than artistic inspiration on the open prairies. Continue reading…
In the movie, a happily widowed Weldon, finally free of social/spousal constraint to pursue her own goals, impetuously heads West to find Sitting Bull, only to encounter skepticism and open hostility from the likes of U.S. Army Col. Silas Groves (Sam Rockwell) and local commanding officer James McLaughlin (Ciaran Hinds). But she persists in her goal and eventually persuades Sitting Bull (Michael Greyeyes) to let her paint him. The two form a close friendship, and Weldon finds herself caught up in the Lakotas’ struggle for rights and agency. Her outspoken sympathy for the Lakotas alienates her from much of the the town’s white population, but she refuses to be turned away from what she believes is right.
In real life, Weldon was actually known as Caroline rather than Catherine and was a divorcee, not a widow. She also had a child, who makes no appearance in the movie. These deviations from the facts of Weldon’s life (which is chronicled in more detail in Eileen Pollack’s book Woman Walking Ahead) don’t make her story less compelling, but it’s always worth remembering that even fact-based movies usually take at least a few liberties with the truth.
But definitely don’t let that stop you from enjoying this femme-powered Western drama, which mixes its sweeping vistas and beautiful cinematography with a moving story of a woman who found her passion in an unexpected place. One of the most powerful parts of Weldon’s story is her realization that she, like most white Americans, had literally everything to learn about the Lakota people, their traditions, and their values. — Betsy Bozdech
Team #MOTW’s comments:
MaryAnn Johanson Susanna White’s delicately wrought portrait of the friendship between Catherine Weldon and Sitting Bull is not only a beautiful example of cultural exchange and growing respect between people ostensibly across enemy lines. It’s also a terrific example of what star Jessica Chastain has been engaging in offscreen: Weldon uses her privilege, as a white woman, to help those who do not share it, the Natives being systematically oppressed by the government that supposedly represents her. *Woman Walks Ahead* is most definitely not another movie telling a tale of people of color through the eyes of a white person. (Sitting Bull is a remarkably nuanced character, as are other Natives here.) It’s an absolutely essential story about how the privileged can be a good ally to the unprivileged.
Nikki Baughan: The exploration of history through the female experience remains a rare thing in filmmaking – and perhaps nowhere more so than in the Western. Director Susanna White boldy takes on this overtly masculine cinematic landscape with this sensitive portrayal of real-life Native American rights campaigner Catherine Weldon, who travelled from 1880s New York City to the Dakota plains in order to paint legendary Chief Sitting Bull and subsequently became embroiled in their fight to regain control of their lands. Read full review.
Esther Iverem: It is so startling to see a story focusing on the legendary Lakota chief Sitting Bull, played by the mesmerizing Michael Greyeyes, that I almost forgive Woman Walks Ahead for telling another story like this through the narrative of a White person. In this case, the plot focuses on the painter Catherine Weldon, who traveled from New York to the Dakotas to paint a portrait of Sitting Bull. Actress Jessica Chastain does a superb job in the role of Weldon. The production is atmospheric and offers a rare opportunity to “see” a depiction of indigenous people of Standing Rock who, more than 100 years later, are still fighting for their land and natural resources.
Jennifer Merin In Susanna White’s compelling femme-centric Western drama, Jessica Chastain stars as Catherine Weldon, the 19th Century artist and activist who in 1889 ventured from Brooklyn, NY across the continent to the Dakota Territory, where she championed the rights of the Sioux Nation and painted a now famous portrait of Chief Sitting Bull. Set within the cinematically beautiful desolation of the Dakota Badlands, the narrative chronicles the dramatic obstacles encountered by Weldon in her determination to not be deterred in her personal goals at a time when women were simply not recognized as independent and capable persons. Chastain’s performance is the embodiment of Weldon’s will.and inspiring spirit.
Anne Brodie: Jessica Chastain plays Caroline Weldon, a New York painter who took up the cause of rights for Native Americans 1887 in Susanna White’s fact-based historical drama. Weldon set out alone the following year to Standing Rock Indian Reservation in South Dakota expressly to paint the renowned Chief Sitting Bull. Her arrival caused a stir; she was ordered to leave and shunned, to avoid “fanning the flames of liberalism” She stayed put despite strong opposition from a local agent (Ciaran Hinds) and a Cavalry officer (Sam Rockwell) and is robbed and beaten, but finds her way to Sitting Bull now living as a farmer in a remote area. He seems depressed and has given up the leadership of his nation due to the apparent white attacks on the Indian people and way of life. The films reveals hard truths about their treatment by the government, which was about to take Lakota lands, and racist settlers whose habits wiped out the buffalo, parched the land and terrorised Indians. Weldon noted the “deplorable conditions” of life for the Sioux and wrote to politicians, further endangering herself in the white community. She and Sitting Bull (Michael Greyeyes) develop a strong friendship and realize that they are alike in their beliefs; he offers her the safety of his tent. She learns more about the repression of Native Americans and they grow closer. The film is a tool for education and lays out the reasons leading up to the 1890 massacre of the Sioux by the US Cavalry at Wounded Knee. There’s much to learn and watching the relationship between Sitting Bull and Weldon grow is a profound thing. One beef is that Chastain’s accent is not consistent throughout the film, ranging from New York to English to southern, which distracts from the experience.
Marilyn Ferdinand: In the late 19th century, Catherine Weldon (Jessica Chastain), a widow living in New York City, sees an exhibition of works by George Catlin, renowned for his depictions of Native-American life. Moved by his work and wishing to pursue the art career she was forced to abandon upon her marriage, she decides to go to Sioux country to paint a portrait of Sitting Bull (Michael Greyeyes). Despite opposition from the government agent (Ciaran Hinds) and soldiers who are “taming” the territory, Weldon meets Sitting Bull and gets him to agree to sit for her. This based-on-fact film plays fast and loose with the real facts of Caroline Weldon’s life, and in its bid not to romanticize Native Americans, offers so many gory details about the Sioux in its early scenes that it threatens to undercut Weldon’s championing of Native-American rights following her encounter with the Lakota. Nonetheless, Susanna White, an experienced television director, finds a way to make the wide physical and historical expanse of the American West a lived experience for the audience. Rather like Anna and the King of Siam, the friendship and underlying attraction between Weldon and Sitting Bull anchors this beautifully shot, yet surprisingly intimate film. Fans of Western films will enjoy the familiar tropes with which screenwriter Steven Knight infused the script and will have little trouble guessing how this film got its title.
Kristen Page Kirby: There is something special about a prairie sky, and Susanna White (and cinematographer Mike Eley) know how to capture it. Beyond the often breathtaking images of Woman Walks Ahead, White has constructed a story that confronts one of the great sins upon which America rests. When Catherine Weldon (Jessica Chastain) steps off the train with the intention of painting Sitting Bull (Michael Greyeyes), she is the embodiment of the American who has the privilege of viewing American Indians as the primitive nobles our national consciousness has often painted them as. She eventually learns that Sitting Bull and his people are, well, people — dehumanizing, after all, can demean people into savages or elevate them into myth. Woman Walks Ahead occasionally comes dangerously close to embracing the tropes it fights against, becoming a Dances With Wolves, in which American Indians are nothing but noble and the white men are nothing but savage. On the whole, it manages to resist such simplicity. Even when it tilts into saccharine sentimentality, when so much is done so well, much can be forgiven.
Sandie Angulo Chen: It’s unclear how historically accurate director Susanna White’s film is, but it’s quite compelling to find out more about Catherine Weldon (Jessica Chastain), a Brooklyn-based painter who not only traveled to Standing Rock to paint Sitting Bull’s (Michael Greyeyes) portrait but also befriended and consulted with him about how to oppose the Dawes Act. Depending on the source, she may have also fallen in love with the legendary Lakoda Sioux leader. Chastain and Greyeyes have a believable chemistry, and despite excellent supporting players (Sam Rockwell, Ciaran Hinds, and Bill Camp), the film ultimately remains about Catherine and Sitting Bull. White manages to keep Weldon on the side of ally and not white savior, but it’s admittedly a blurry line between one and the other. The plains are beautifully shot by director of photography Mike Eley — with New Mexico standing in for the Dakotas — and the film is a fine example of a story that deserves to be told.
Cate Marquis Director Susanna White’s woman-centric Western stars Jessica Chastain as a painter who travels from New York into the West with the intention of painting Sitting Bull. Once again, Chastain lands a role as a strong woman carving out her own way in the world. The story is based on a real person, who did travel to North Dakota and became a confidant and adviser to the Lakota chief. Read full review.
Title: Woman Walks Ahead
Directors: Susanna White
Release Date: June 29, 2018
Running Time: 102 minutes
Language: English, Sioux
Screenwriter: Steven Knight
Theatrical Distribution Company: A24
AWFJ Movie of the Week Panel Members: Sandie Angulo Chen, Nikki Baughan, Anne Brodie, Betsy Bozdech, Marilyn Ferinand, Cynthia Fuchs, Pam Grady, Esther Iverem, MaryAnn Johanson, Cate Marquis, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Kristen Page-Kirby, Moira Sullivan, Susan Wloszczyna, Jeanne Wolf
Edited by Jennifer Merin