Robert Redford’s name on the marquee – he’s the narrator and executive producer – gives this stinging documentary about racism and injustice its best shot at getting noticed. Redford uses his clout well. In the manner of Errol Morris’s landmark documentary, The Thin Blue Line, this film makes it its business to get someone out of jail. The prisoner is Sioux activist Leonard Peltier, who is serving two life terms at Leavenworth for the murder of two FBI agents on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation on June 26th, 1975.
The movie, directed by Michael Apted – who deals with similar issues on a fictional basis in Thunderheart – uses witnesses to account for events on the day of the shootout and during the notorious FBI manhunt that followed. Of the four Native Americans indicted, one was released for lack of evidence and two were acquitted for acting in self-defense. Extradited from Canada a year later, Peltier – who admitted to being involved in the gunfire but denied killing the agents – was tried and convicted.
Redford and his team make no claim for Peltier’s guilt or innocence. The issue is whether Peltier received a fair trial, and the evidence they’ve amassed is impressively damning. Though Peltier and several U.S. attorneys are interviewed, the FBI declined to take part.
The movie paints an eye-opening picture of the poverty and violence at Pine Ridge and of the tension between the government and the Oglala nation stemming back to the Indian occupation of Wounded Knee in 1973. Is there a government conspiracy against the American Indian Movement with Peltier as sacrificial lamb? Oliver Stone is mulling a film of In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, Peter Matthiessen’s 1983 book on the case. But appeals for a new Peltier trial or a pardon have long languished in the courts. Incident at Oglala – muckraking filmmaking at its best – may just raise his hopes a little higher.