Navajo Mystery Series ‘Dark Winds’ Seeks True Storytelling

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LOS ANGELES — Robert Redford and George RR Martin are the big names behind “Dark Winds,” but they’re not the biggest.

That accolade belongs to the Native American creators and actors who have ensured that the AMC mystery series rings true to the Native experience and enduring culture, which has been largely snubbed or recklessly caricatured by Hollywood.

This time, the storytelling is “an inside job,” said director Chris Eyre, resulting in what he describes as a “Southwestern Native American film noir.”

Based on Tony Hillerman’s acclaimed novels starring Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee of the Navajo Tribal Police, AMC’s ‘Dark Winds’ puts newly-associated lawmen in a double-murder case that may be tied to a brazen heist. of armored car.

The investigation and what underlies it are engrossing but, as with Hillerman’s books, what sets “Dark Winds” apart is its complex mix of nuanced characters and relationships, spiritual lore, and the devastating toll of unequal rooted.

The last aspect is painfully illustrated by a midwife’s warning to a pregnant woman to avoid a hospital birth or risk unwanted sterilization, a reflection of what Native Americans faced in the setting. from the 1970s series, the producers said. (A 1976 study by the US General Accounting Office found that women under 21 were being sterilized despite a moratorium, among other issues.)

“A lot of our history is based on oral tradition,” said Zahn McClarnon, who plays Lt. Leaphorn. “We’ve been telling our stories for thousands of years…I think the television industry is finally seeing that and realizing that we have our own stories, and those are rich, deep stories.”

“Dark Winds,” which debuts Sunday on AMC (9 p.m. EDT) and the AMC+ streaming service, is steeped in the austere grandeur of New Mexico, where much of it is shot and filmed.

“During the day, the landscape is simply magnificent. At night it turns into something else, it gets intimidating that there’s so much land out there,” Eyre said. “That’s what the show is about, this beautiful paradox of this world that we’ve never seen, this mystery.”

The series counts among its executive producers actor-filmmaker Redford and Martin, of “Game of Thrones” book and TV fame. Viewers may recall a 2002 miniseries starring Leaphorn and Chee, produced by Redford. Martin is new to the mix but not to Hillerman’s work — both residents of New Mexico, they were part of a circle of writers who met regularly in Albuquerque.

The PBS series, “Skinwalkers: The Navajo Mysteries,” made before authenticity gained traction in Hollywood, was notable for its Native American cast and an Aboriginal director – Eyre, a member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes, who shared the duties of direction.

But “Dark Winds” also has nearly all of the native writers, with one exception. Eyre (“Friday Night Lights,” “Smoke Signals”) directed the entire series, and creator and executive producer Graham Roland is Chickasaw.

The cast includes prominent native actors, including McClarnon (“Fargo”, “Longmire”); Kiowa Gordon (“The Twilight Saga” franchise) as Chee; Jessica Matten as Police Sergeant. Bernadette Manuelito and Deanna Allison as Leaphorn’s wife, Emma.

Their resumes and performances refute the industry’s longstanding complaints about the lack of experienced native actors.

“I’ve heard that excuse before,” Roland said. “What we discovered when we launched this casting call is that the Indigenous talent pool is much deeper than even I thought… Everyone on the show is amazing.”

Roland (“Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan,” “Fringe”) was tied to the proposed series in 2019, before the recent boomlet of native-inclusive shows including “Reservation Dogs” and “Rutherford Falls.”

“What was unique was the opportunity to tell a story in the Indigenous community without a white character bringing you into the community and to experience it through the white character’s perspective,” Roland said. Instead, the perspective is that of the native character “who grew up there, lived there and controls that environment”.

American television has been slow in the diversity game, but it’s a welcome addition, said Canadian-born Matten, who is Métis-Cree from Red River.

“Canada has been very, very generous in providing a platform for Indigenous storytellers for about a decade now. However, the kind of reach we have is very limited compared to what the United States can give,” she said. “Being a part of ‘Dark Winds’ means a lot because, finally, I can be a part of something that has that reach.”

For Gordon, the show is a chance to “shatter all those expectations and stereotypes that have always been attributed to us.” He said the release of the trailer alone has prompted blood pressure-boosting comments calling the show unreal because it eschews hackneyed Aboriginal depictions.

“We’re trying to portray these people (characters) like nothing we’ve seen before, so it’s a great opportunity,” the actor said.

The decision to leave the story in the 20th century proved to be the right one for Eyre and Roland.

“When you dig into the ground of the reserve proper…there are places that don’t have electricity as of today. There are communities that don’t have water, that don’t have no cell service,” Eyre said. “It’s ironic that so much has changed, and so little has changed.

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