Lakota Liaison: A Brooklyn artist has a life-changing encounter with Sitting Bull in Susanna White's 'Woman Walks Ahead'

Movies Features

British director Susanna White studied film at UCLA as a Fulbright scholar. A BAFTA winner for 2005’s “Bleak House,” she is mostly known for her television work, here and in England, but she has also directed two narrative features, the children’s film Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang (2010) and a spy thriller, Our Kind of Traitor (2016). Her latest turn as director is set in the American West of the 1880s, and stars Jessica Chastain as an artist and Indian rights advocate. Woman Walks Ahead (opening in theatres June 29 from A24 and DirecTV) is the story of a real Brooklyn divorcée, Catherine Weldon (1844-1921), who traveled to what is today the Standing Rock reservation, in order to paint a portrait of Sitting Bull.

White was in New York City in April when Woman Walks Ahead screened at the Tribeca Film Festival. “I was drawn to the script because it is a western told through a female gaze,” she says. White recalls watching John Ford westerns as a child. “I loved them for their sense of place, but it was a very male world.” Woman Walks Ahead unfolds from Catherine’s point of view, and against the backdrop of the U.S. government land grab of the Dakota Territory in the late 1880s and early 1890s. Present-day North and South Dakota, it was then the ancestral land of Sitting Bull and his Hunkpapa Lakota tribe. Like most adaptations of historical figures and events, the movie sometimes sacrifices accuracy for drama, but Steven Knight’s screenplay is nevertheless distinguished by its Lakota perspective. As the film suggests, the seizure of land that Sitting Bull campaigned against contributed to his death and to the Wounded Knee Massacre two weeks later.

White explains that only a few artifacts existed from Weldon’s life and work when Knight wrote his screenplay 16 years ago—and most significant of all was her small painting of Sitting Bull. Lionizing a Native American hero of the Battle of Little Big Horn, “Custer’s last stand,” was a highly controversial undertaking. “We now know that Catherine was a land rights activist before she went West,” White explains, “although that is not obvious in the film.” Knight, best known as the Oscar-nominated screenwriter of Stephen Frears’ Dirty Pretty Things, was inspired in part by Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West. While Weldon is not mentioned in the book, Sitting Bull figures prominently. The great warrior is portrayed in the film by Cree Indian Michael Greyeyes (AMC’s “Fear the Walking Dead”).

The filmmaker visited Lakota lands, mainly the Standing Rock and Pine Ridge reservations, but opted for locations near Santa Fe, New Mexico. Production began a week before protests erupted at Standing Rock over the Dakota Access Pipeline. “We made it work because we didn’t have an enormous budget and we had to shoot the film in 31 days,” White says. “New Mexico gave us favorable tax breaks.” While those familiar with the vistas of North Dakota may spot the mismatch, the director’s priority was to capture a sense of space and open skies. “I think we got some incredible landscapes, and the only negative in New Mexico was the number of cacti,” she notes. “One poor guy had to dig them up all the time!” White credits her Native American advisors for the film’s authenticity; among other things, they coached Greyeyes in the Lakota language. “Having it spoken in the film is an small act of preservation,” the director says.

White particularly recalls her Lakota assistant, Willie White. “Every morning, he would drive me to set and we would chat,” she recalls. “I found being around his gentle presence put me in a very good mindset for the day.”

Woman Walks Ahead opens with Weldon leaving Brooklyn after her bitter divorce, and swiftly moves to the train journey. She encounters animosity almost immediately after she arrives in the Dakota Territory, but as the film progresses she is transformed by the land and her friendship with Sitting Bull. In real life, Weldon had a child from an extramarital affair; her young son accompanied her to the reservation but died on the trip back East. While White and her producers considered adding the child character, in the end they decided that it too dramatically altered the narrative.

“I felt a tremendous sense of responsibility in making this film,” White says. “We very deliberately set out to tell it from Catherine’s point of view because it’s her trying to understand a culture that was not her own, but also because we were shining a torch on this forgotten piece of history.” The filmmaker observes that she embarked on a journey similar to that of her protagonist; as a white British woman who had only visited the West briefly in the past, she, too, was learning about a new culture. Asked if she worried about committing a faux pas, she smiles and says: “I am a great believer in admitting ignorance.”

While Weldon’s perspective prevails in Woman Walks Ahead, White’s direction suggests that Chastain and Greyeyes are co-stars. “It is the story of two people who did not have a voice in society,” she explains. “Catherine was told what to do by her father and her husband, or was controlled by her brothers—and, remember, women did not have the vote at the time.” The opening scene of the movie has Weldon disposing of a possession that is a reminder of her unhappy marriage. “Catherine develops this extraordinary friendship with Sitting Bull, who also had not been given the public hearing he should have had,” White observes. “I wanted it to be about this unlikely connection between two different people who are both disenfranchised. I wanted it to be a relationship of equals, so that’s what you may be responding to. ”

Both White and Chastain are redheads, and the director recalls that they each needed to take precautions in New Mexico’s blistering sun. “Jessica is a wise soul and one of the world’s great actresses,” White says. “It was a privilege to work with her.” As for finding an actor to portray Sitting Bull, the filmmaker explains that it was a long search. “When I went to the Dakotas, overwhelmingly native people told me that Sitting Bull was a great spiritual leader,” White says. “It was important in casting that I had a gentle character. Michael has that.”

The skies over the high desert delivered a few surprises during production. “There is that wonderful light in the shot of Jessica in the cemetery,” the director says, recalling a moment when Catherine visits the graves of fallen Lakota. “People think it’s CGI but it is what was there in the sky that evening. Also, in the scene where Sitting Bull tells her he knows he’s going to die, we had lightning. I changed the lens and went onto the next shot and we got lightning again. Our Lakota friend said that it meant the Great Spirit was with us.”