The collective historical illiteracy of this country—evidenced by both pure unawareness and a lack of long-term memory—speaks volumes about the United States. Major events that shaped the course of this nation just a few decades past go largely forgotten by the masses. Ask someone what the Iran-Contra Affair was, and most can't even tell you the Contra side of it all involved Nicaragua. A few pivotal moments of the past three decades are remembered and understood, at least in part. But many, like the Occupation of Alcatraz, are little more than faded memories.
The 19-month occupation of Alcatraz Island by Native American activists was a crucial moment in American history. A group of Indians took over the abandoned federal prison, staking claim to the land as dictated by the terms of the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868. The occupation ended in June 1971, not surprisingly, with duplicity on the part of the American government in ending negotiations.
One of the key figures at Alcatraz was an outspoken activist named John Trudell. The events in San Francisco Bay would help give birth to the American Indian Movement (AIM), a highly politicized organization that would make headlines throughout the 1970s for its confrontational approach to ensuring Native American rights, as well as its deadly clashes with federal forces. At the center of all of this was Trudell, the national spokesman for AIM, who, because of his charisma and eloquence, fell under the watchful eye of the FBI and its Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO). His 17,000-page personal FBI file is infamous—one of the most extensive in the Bureau's history.
Documentary filmmaker Heather Rae, working closely with Trudell, paints an intimate portrait of a complex man many believe to be a prophet. Rae's film uses Trudell's life as the axis to briefly touch upon key moments in late-20th-century history: Alcatraz, the occupation of Wounded Knee, the tragic shootout at the Pine Ridge Indian reservation. But these are just moments in the life of one person, and the film Trudell, through the use of interviews and archival footage, seldom deviates too far from its intended course, which is the life of the man in conjunction with these events, and not the events themselves. This is not a negative thing, as there is already information about much of the tragic and brutal history surrounding AIM. Rae is wise enough and disciplined enough to remain focused on Trudell, whose own life was mired in tragedy, including the still-unsolved deaths of his pregnant wife, children and mother-in-law in an apparent arson a mere 12 hours after he burned a flag during a demonstration.
Trudell succeeds in part as a primer for critical moments in contemporary history. But more than anything, this film is a compelling biography of a man whose personal journey has been closely tied to some of the darkest of recent times.
Not rated. Hollywood Theatre, 4122 NE Sandy Blvd., 281-4215. 7:15 pm Friday-Thursday, March 24-30. Also 2:45 and 4:30 Saturday-Sunday. $4-$6.