By Guest Contributor Gabriel Canada, cross-posted from Racebending
Under happier circumstances, Billie Frechette would have been my great aunt. She toured around the country for five years with my great uncles as part of the “Crime Doesn’t Pay” stage show. There, she recounted her six months with their son and brother John Dillinger–and her own two years in jail that came as a result of her fateful romance with him.
It was true that crime didn’t pay for the family. John Dillinger served several years in prison and was later killed by Federal agents. People in Indianapolis, Mooresville or Martinsville were not lining up to risk dating the daughter, or the niece, or even the cousin of a member of the “Dillinger gang.” It was a hard life–and an odd one–because if the family wasn’t making a great deal of money of off John, the media certainly was.
The Crime Doesn’t Pay tour was only a small part of the cachet industry that popped up, whetting the appetite of a gangster crazy nation. It is undeniably strange to see replicas of a relative’s death mask on sale as a collectible alongside wanted posters and wooden guns. Nothing–save perhaps J. Edgar Hoover and his fledgling FBI agency–reaped more from the life and death of John Dillinger than Hollywood. Soon after his death, Humphrey Boggart would play a fictitious Indiana bank robber in High Sierra (1941)–his break through role as a leading man. Warren Oates, Mark Harmon, and Johnny Depp would follow suit, raking in more money than a bank robber ever could. Just this week, Leonardo Di Caprio can be seen in the trailer for the biopic J. Edgar (2011) alongside Dillinger’s death mask.
When Hollywood sought to adapt the story of my ill-fated, almost-aunt Evelyn “Billie” Frechette, they made it clear that despite the fact she and her sisters were actresses they would not have been welcome at the casting call. She was the victim of “racebending” in its most unadulterated form. The kind that transformed Audrey Hepburn into an “Indian”, saw Michelle Phillips, a singer from the Mommas and the Papas, turned into Billie onscreen. A Menominee girl who grew up on reservation and went to a mission school was portrayed by a white pop star.
What is most infuriating (other than seeing my uncle portrayed as an errant cop killing psychopath, which was far from the truth) is that the film adaptations which include Billie take pains to let the audience know she’s “half Indian,” and more to the point, that she’s been discriminated against because of it.
When we first see her onscreen in Dillinger, Warren Oates tells her “They don’t serve Indians here” and a blonde haired Michelle Phillips explains that it’s okay, it’s her French half that drinks.
The blonde hair should have been the first cue that historical accuracy was not a high priority in 1977, but the opening minutes of the film get much worse for the real life story of Billie and Johnny. He robs the bar and kidnaps her. In the next scene, he introduces her to his gang, calls her an “injun,” and tells them to never let her drink. This is followed by a gratuitous rape scene.
I had high hopes that such terrible inaccuracies wouldn’t be repeated three decades later when Universal Studios took on the retelling of Dillinger’s life for Public Enemies (2009). From the start, historical accuracy was respected with director Michael Mann shooting on location at the banks, hotels, prisons, and hideouts where the real events took place–even going so far as to have his set designer restore many of them, creating tourist havens for local communities. The actors and film makers even descended on the Dillinger family farm.
That is why it was even more disappointing that–though Billie’s romance was central to the plot of this new film and it was closer to the truth in almost every way–”racebending” was still employed, unapologetically. Marion Cotillard still introduces herself as half-Indian in her first scene. She makes it clear that she’s been scorned for it, saying that most guys don’t like that about her. (I am left with the impression that it isn’t “most guys” who wouldn’t like that about Billie, but rather “most guys in Hollywood.”)
Which is baffling. Michael Mann, the director of Public Enemies, was also the director of Last of the Mohicans and Heat. He played a large part in launching the careers of actors of color like Wes Studi and Eric Schweig in the 1990s. Though Mann keeps the context of Billie’s heritage intact in the film, and has a history of working with First Nation actors, we are left with Cotillard–who, like Phillips before her, is far removed from the Wisconsin reservation where Frechette lived most of her life. The only way to let the audience know Cotillard is playing an Indian is for the actors to come straight out and say it, as if denied the use of a buckskin dress, Hollywood simply didn’t know how to introduce an audience to a First Nations woman in a speakeasy.
Billie Frechette is the sole heroine in these Dillinger films, where tough guy gangsters are mowed down in hails of bullets and G-men don’t bother to flash their badges before opening fire. Yet, the first thing the film makers want the audience to know is that she is half Indian. It makes me wonder: If that detail about her is so important, why was this overlooked by the casting directors?
We are meant to feel sympathetic for Billie in Public Enemies and Dillinger. Not much good happens to her. She goes to jail and is tortured by the FBI for little more than falling in love with the wrong guy.
The films take pains to suggest she was with that wrong guy because no one wanted to dance or drink with an Indian. Well, if anyone is responsible for that last plight of Billie onscreen, it is Hollywood itself. Crime may not pay, but Hollywood–for whatever reason–still thinks racebending will.