Sundance 2019: Words from a Bear

A still from Words From A Bear by Jeffrey Palmer, an official selection of the Documentary Premieres program at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute. Photo by Sirin Samman.

N. Scott Momaday: Words from a Bear is a new American Masters documentary celebrating the life of the 1969 Pulitzer Prize-winning Native American author.

To say that N. Scott Momaday is a celebrated storyteller would not be an understatement.  The 1960s were an interesting time in America.  I think this goes without saying.  The fact that he took home the Pulitzer Prize for his work says even more because this was a guy who wrote about the Native American culture!  Native Americans have lived on this land longer than anyone else yet he was the first to get recognized.  The fact that it came nearly 200 years since America was founded is not really surprising.  All one has to do is watch a film set in the Old West to see how Native Americans are treated.

Through his writings, Momaday would celebrate his Kiowa ancestry.  There’s some beautiful animation that appears throughout the film.  Momaday provides the oration, of course.

As with any biographical documentary, we get to know what Momaday’s life was like while growing up in Oklahoma.  He announced to his parents when he was 8 years old that he would become a writer.  Sure enough, he did.  In a matter of time, House Made of Dawn won him the Pulitzer.  This book celebrated its 50th anniversary last year!

There’s some rather fascinating anecdotes in this film that comes from people who knew the 2007 Medal of Arts winner.  One from Beau Bridges struck me in particular.  I say this because it runs along with some of the things that we’re talking about today.  Most importantly, it deals with representation.  Beau was talking about how he was writing a screenplay about the Carlisle Industrial Indian School in Carlisle, Penn.  This is the first off-reservation boarding school.  It wasn’t until his brother, Jeff Bridges, signed on to produce that led him to see things in a different light.

“I’d like to know what tribe you belong to,” Jeff reportedly told his brother, Beau.

Supposedly, Beau wanted the film to be told from a Native American point of view.  As Jeff’s comments suggest, it’s kind of hard for the Bridges brothers to make a film on their own with this perspective.  This is where N. Scott Momaday came aboard.  He would pen the screenplay for what became The Moon in Two Windows.  While Beau Bridges reads from the screenplay, the film has yet to be produced.  It sounds like it could make for a captivating film so hopefully this documentary will drive up the interest!

There’s no better way than to mark the 50th anniversary of N. Scott Momaday’s Pulitzer Prize than by American Masters telling us his story in Words from a Bear.

DIRECTOR:  Jeffrey Palmer
FEATURING:  N. Scott Momaday, Rilla Askew, Joy Harjo, Robert Redford, Jeff Bridges, Beau Bridges, James Earl Jones, and Richard West

N. Scott Momaday: Words from a Bear holds its world premiere during the 2019 Sundance Film Festival in the Documentary Premieres program. The documentary will air during American Masters on PBS at a later date. Grade: 4/5

Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.