It's likely that you won't see a more beautiful feature documentary in 2023 than Lakota Nation vs. United States.
It's also quite likely that you won't see an angrier one.
With Native poet Layli Long Soldier guiding us through her Oyate’s connection to the Black Hills and the remarkable lensing of Kevin Phillips immersing us in those same Black Hills, Lakota Nation becomes a riveting and impossible to ignore documentary that chronicles the Lakota Indians' century-long quest to reclaim their sacred lands - the Black Hills - that was stolen by the U.S. government in violation of treaties. Co-directed by Jesse Short Bull and Laura Tomaselli, Lakota Nation vs. United States captures the myriad of ways that America has ignored its debt to indigenous communities and explores the ways to make it all right including, most notably, the "Land Back" movement that has become a cry for social justice shouted by and on behalf of members of the Lakota Nation.
After a successful festival run that included a world premiere at Tribeca in 2022 and prizes at Milwaukee Film Festival (Emerging Documentary Jury Award) and Provincetown International Film Festival (Audience Award, Best Documentary Feature), Lakota Nation vs. United States has arrived at indie IFC Films for a July 14th release.
Lakota Nation, while often angry, is clear-eyed and well-researched in terms of its documenting of this country's long-standing issues with racism and colonialism. Focusing exclusively on the Lakota Nation, many of the issues presented represent the experience of the Indigenous people within the U.S. at large. This is a film that so easily could have been a simple, straightforward presentation of the facts. That in itself would have been powerful, but Short Bull and Tomaselli have dug deeper and created a much broader cultural tapestry grounded in rich, and often infuriating, historical perspectives. In addition to the remarkable voice and presence of Layli Long Soldier, the filmmakers amplify other Indigenous voices along with a wealth of actors and scholars. Somehow, Lakota Nation vs. United States is both intellectually stimulating and emotionally resonant. By the end of the film, I was not only digging deeper into the the plight of the Lakotas but also researching the voices here and, yes, purchasing Long Soldier's 2017 collection Whereas.
Lakota Nation vs. United States reminds me of my response when I first read the work of Kaitlin B. Curtice and began to realize how poorly I'd lived into my own Native roots as the grandchild of a full-blooded Choctaw woman. I became convicted to do better and to do more. I felt the same, perhaps even more passionately, after watching Lakota Nation.
Long Soldier's presence radiates throughout Lakota Nation's two-hour running time and it fuels the film's richly spiritual, meditative narrative rhythms. The original music by Raven Chacon practically envelopes and is so profound that when time is given to more "Americanized" music even the "Star Spangled Banner" starts to sound a little kitschy.
Lakota Nation is practically a textbook on how to effectively make a richly historical, socially driven documentary with a broad artistic tapestry presenting everything from historical footage to paintings to music to re-enactments and so much more. there's simply no question that Lakota Nation is one of the most compelling docs of 2023.
I'm always hesitant to use the word "inspiring" in describing a film - especially a documentary. After all, I think to myself, "What did it really inspire me to do?" It's not really inspiring unless you're actually inspired to act. Indeed, however, Lakota Nation inspired me to learn more, think more, do more, and listen more.
I loved every moment of Lakota Nation vs. United States and yet it made me very, very angry. Easily one of the most satisfying documentary experiences of the year, Lakota Nation vs. United States is best experienced on the big screen if it arrives in a theater near you.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic