For his third feature documentary, filmmaker Kris Kaczor turns his focus to the life and legacy of SuAnne Big Crow, a high school state basketball champion from South Dakota. As a Lakota Native American, SuAnne became a source of great inspiration for her community.
As the ugly legacies of racist attitudes and structures persist throughout the US, so too does the legacy of the genocide of the Native American peoples. Native Americans routinely face prejudice and discrimination, have overall the highest poverty of all minority communities, and many reservations suffer from drug and alcohol-related problems.
Big Crow spends a great deal of its brief 69-minute runtime establishing the social and economic contexts in which SuAnne Big Crow lived, interviewing friends and family members and establishing a familiarity with her reservation. In some respects, SuAnne becomes a vector through which to understand her people; her legacy is felt in the Re-Member community group, while her local celebrity has become a rallying point for both the Reservation residents, her local high school and the wider South Dakotan town.
The grainy, archival 1990s video footage of SuAnne’s achievements on the court is used sparingly – perhaps due to a relatively small pool of material – to instead focus on testimonial interviews from the people that know her. This approach is successful in one respect: the esteem in which SuAnne’s community hold her and her achievements in breaking down prejudice between the town’s Native Americans and white residents is clear. But it also means that SuAnne is defined somewhat by her absence; holding back that she died tragically in a car accident until nearly the end of the film niggles at our curiosity instead of our emotional investment. The film’s early phase, too, suffers from a lack of purpose – at times there is so much context-setting that one wonders where SuAnne is in her own film.
Nevertheless, a key anecdote of SuAnne proudly marching on to the basketball court in defiance of the bigotry facing her is very powerful; her manner of defiance gives us a keen sense of her humour and fortitude. Moreover, her friends and family members’ interviews are frequently moving, particularly in their descriptions of her ongoing legacy at her former high school, which has inspired generations of young Native American students, not to mention the Happy Town USA centre that was constructed in her honour, doubling as both a community centre and a place for Reservation youngsters to learn life skills. As a documentary, Big Crow’s ambitions are modest, but while its structural choices occasionally stall the film’s momentum, its message of hope and pride persisting in the face of great loss is an admirable one.