John Trudell's biography is inextricably tied to the history of the American Indian Movement, an organization whose impact on '70s protest culture has been either forgotten or reduced to a few seconds of footage in stock Hollywood hippie-era montages. Unfortunately, Heather Rae's documentary Trudell often plays like a feature-length version of one of those montages, as Rae switches up film stocks and chops together archival clips while layering the soundtrack with Trudell's memories, poems, and music. It's like an 80-minute music video, timed to the meter of righteous outrage.
There are glimpses of what Trudell might've been in clips from vintage Trudell interviews, conducted at the times when he was most in the news: when he occupied Alcatraz with the group Indians Of All Tribes, when he was the national spokesman for AIM, and when he was on the frontlines of the "No Nukes" movement. The interviews are shot plainly and clearly, and Trudell speaks with real urgency about the specific injustices done to him and his people. By contrast, Rae's interviews with Trudell are shot with roving handheld cameras, as the poet-warrior spouts pseudo-profundities like, "The spirit of life is almost nonexistent in the perceptional reality of the society that we're in," as though he were only playing the part of a thoughtful, angry man. A keener film would've explored the ironies of being an agitator by trade, and discovered how Trudell keeps his fire burning some 30-plus years after he intended to change the world. But as soon as Rae starts trotting out celebrities like Jackson Browne and Robert Redford to talk about how Trudell's conversations with them are "explosive in their insight," it's obvious that this is going to be a tribute, not a study.
Trudell is at its best when it's personal, like when Trudell recalls the suspicious death of his wife and kids, or when his daughter Sage talks about how her dad picked up her and her sister every summer for cross-country road trips. The movie also contains some valuable information about AIM, whose story should be told and re-told, lest we forget how our government can quash inconvenient social movements. But anyone looking for history lessons from Rae's documentary will have to be patient and alert enough to pick through the poetry.