larry p. madden | yl voice | aug. 2017
When a writer gets a “suggestion" from his editor, he's obliged to try his best to grant it. In this case, I was asked to review the 1971 film “Billy Jack" through my 2017 eyes. This was an interesting proposition to say the least, but I was willing to travel back to my youth when America was a very different place. Bigotry was more socially acceptable then, but so were hippies' dreams of utopia compounds.
Into this framework came Billy Jack, a “half-breed" who fought back against injustice. Tom Laughlin wrote, directed and starred in this film and its prequel and sequels. He was non-Native, but many Native people couldn't help but to cheer for the character he created. Billy Jack was an ex-Green Beret who was willing to take a stand to balance the scales of social justice. He did so by using some form of martial arts — which doesn't make a lot sense, but one can see a direct connection between this film series and Chuck Norris' “Walker, Texas Ranger" two decades later.
This installment of the franchise centers around the Freedom School, a multiethnic school on Navajo land. The existence of this idealistic haven for free learners paints a pretty picture for the future of America, but the school's leader and mentor, played by Delores Taylor (Laughlin's wife), suffers terrible degradation at the hands of the film's villains. Rest assured, with flying fists and feet, Billy Jack does get revenge for her.
Still, the real jewel of this movie isn't in any one cinematic moment, but rather its look at how art was coping with a horrifying time in America. Politicians, civil rights leaders and even a president were assassinated and the Vietnam War had become a political and social hot potato, causing deep civil unrest and the acceptance of government distrust. This movie picked at many scabs on the American persona, including integration, Indian sovereignty and women's rights.
At its core, “Billy Jack" speaks of a changing America that began to recognize Natives' rights to land sovereignty, but that doesn't mean it doesn't have some warts. The film celebrates the Hollywood movie stereotypical cliché' of a strong mixed blood saving his weaker full blood relatives, and the film's namesake is another example of a “noble savage." The school itself showcases a Native community where everyone sings and gets along, which is another example of the filmmakers projecting their hopes for what it meant to be a tribal group.
All that aside, if you were looking for Indian heroes in cinema in the 1970s, Billy Jack was as good as it got. Tom Laughlin left his mark on Indian culture. It wasn't a crater-sized mark, but it's worth celebrating all the same. So, take my editor's and my advice, and make some time to travel back to old cars and weird hair and watch a white Kung Fu “Indian" try to solve the world's ills. Almost fifty years after its release, old “Billy Jack" still holds the same magic it used to.
Larry P. Madden (Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Wisconsin) was born and raised in the Sturgeon Bay area. A recent graduate of CMN, he enjoys the Powwow trail and strives to maintain balance on the red road.