Review by Sean Boelman
After a somewhat under-the-radar debut at Tribeca in 2022, Lakota Nation vs. United States is finally making its way to theaters where it will hopefully make the big splash it deserves. Lakota Nation vs. United States is one of the most accomplished documentaries of the year, telling its urgent story in a way that is nothing short of extraordinary.
In Lakota Nation vs. United States, the filmmakers explore the fight that the Lakota community has embarked on to reclaim control over the Black Hills — sacred lands which were stolen by the Americans in violation of treaty agreements. It’s a fascinating, important story that many people are unlikely to know about, making it essential viewing.
The movie is structured into three sections: “Extermination,” “Assimilation,” and “Reparations.” Viewers will be able to figure out what each section entails based on the names alone, but it starts out very depressingly for the first two thirds before ending on a somewhat hopeful note. And it’s definitely very eye-opening.
There’s no denying how angry this film is, and that’s a big part of why the movie works so well. Particularly in the first two thirds, the filmmakers pull no punches when it comes to challenging the status quo of American perception. It’s totally unafraid to call out several fundamental institutions in the American identity.
However, the other aspect of the movie that is intriguing is its dissection of the myth perpetuated by the American people. Like few films before it, Lakota Nation vs. United States does an amazing job of exploring how the history books have been written from an overwhelmingly white perspective, be it Mount Rushmore or the heroification of Colonel Custer.
Yet, despite all of the anger and interrogation, there is a meditative, almost poetic nature to the movie. This quality is lended to the film by the fact that it is written and narrated by the celebrated Native American poet Layli Long Soldier. Although the entire narration is quite poetic, the bookends to the movie resonate particularly strongly.
To go along with this, there are some visuals that are absolutely transfixing. A film like this easily could have been focused on violence, and while there are some violent images, they never linger. Instead, the cinematography by Kevin Phillips is focused on what should have been in terms of the natural beauty of the Black Hills before they were colonized.
Lakota Nation vs. United States has a lot on its mind, and it manages to say everything brilliantly and effectively. It’s not just one of the most important documentaries of the year, but also one of the very best. If this isn’t in the awards conversation at the end of the year, it will be a travesty.
Lakota Nation vs. United States opens in theaters July 14.