Sterlin Harjo had achieved an elusive goal – being an independent filmmaker.
Alongside the usual projects (documentaries, shorts, a few TV episodes), he had made three scripted movies. Each, he said, got “good reviews from the critics who saw it – which are, like, maybe five.”
Then “Reservation Dogs” (shown here) happened … and the number was much higher than five. “The first season was featured on more than 80 critics’ year-end best lists,” said John Solberg of FX,
FX makes the show – with an all-Native cast and crew — for Hulu, which has just started streaming the second season. The first won awards — including Peabody and American Film Institute– and is nominated for two more (best comedy and best new show) by the Television Critics Association.
For half of the show’s four main “Dogs” — Paulina Alexis (Willie Jack, left) and Lane Factor (Cheese, second from right) — this is virtually the first role; both still live at home. “I’m from the rez (reservation),” Alexis told the TCA. “I come into the city all the time, but I like to have my horses.”
That reflects a question these fictional four wrestle with: Do you stay or go?
As they scrambled for money in the first season, their plan was clear: Leave this Oklahoma town, drive to California and start a new life. Then it all imploded.
Willie Jack, deeply shaken by the suicide of her cousin Daniel, decided not to go. So did Cheese. Elora (Devery Jacobs, right) raged at Bear (D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai, second from lefty) when he spent much of the money trying to impress his distant dad; she dumped him and left for California with their nemesis, Jackie.
That’s where things are in the season’s first two episodes, which arrive Aug. 4 and remain available on Hulu. Subsequent episodes debut each Thursday, including a moving one on Aug. 18.
This stay-or-go question can occupy the lives of many small-town people. That includes Harjo, 42, who grew up in Holdenville, an Oklahoma town of 5,700.
“It was really always hard for me,” he said. “To this day, there’s a part of me that knows that I could have stayed and lived a certain life and that would be okay.”
Instead, he studied art and film at the University of Oklahoma, then made movies that reflect his Seminole and Muscogee roots. Each of his three scripted features (2007, 2009, 2015) won major awards at the American Indian Film Festival; one was nominated for a grand jury prize at Sundance.
Indie filmmakers savor such things … and get little more. But then Harjo linked with Taika Waititi.
Waititi – who grew up in New Zealand, with Maori roots – had already shown how a micro-budgeted movie (“What We Do in the Shadows”) can become a TV hit. They crafted a series that has much in common with such FX productions as “Atlanta” and “Better Things” – likably quirky souls who drift through life, stumbling in and out of comedy and drama.
They mostly cast people with little film experience. Until a few years ago, Woon-A-Tai said, “it never even crossed my mind that I could be an actor.”
The exceptions are small supporting roles for Wes Studi and Zahn McClarnon and a big one for Jacobs, the one “Dog” with a busy career. Jacobs, who turns 29 on Aug. 8, has done lots of acting, including multiple episodes of “American Gods,” “Rutherford Falls” and several Canadian-network series. She’s also written and directed three shorts and wrote that strong Aug. 18 episode.
She has a big-city sort of resume, but says her instincts were formed on a Canadian reserve. “I was born and raised in Kahnawake, Mohawk territory, which is where my whole family still lives. And unlike Elora, I never wanted to leave.”
She had to leave, to become an actress, but “it’s really important for me to get back whenever I can and to stay connected, because it’s so much of who I am.”
Harjo knows the feeling. “I’m only an hour-and-a-half away from my small town that I thought I wanted to get away from.” He keeps re-creating it, with warmth and humor, in “Reservation Dogs.”