“Dark Winds”, on Polar: crime and magic in Navajo country

Sun-drenched or snow-capped, the hillocks of Monument Valley watch impassively over the quests of Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn (Zahn McClarnon), of the Navajo tribal police

“Dark Winds”, on Polar: crime and magic in Navajo country

Sun-drenched or snow-capped, the hillocks of Monument Valley watch impassively over the quests of Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn (Zahn McClarnon), of the Navajo tribal police. Seen from a cinema seat, one would have believed that these rock formations were the property of John Ford who used them as the background for some major westerns.

Before being a Hollywood setting, Monument Valley is a Navajo sacred place. The two seasons of Dark Winds, which we can discover in their continuity on Canal, are, as much as a detective series with impressive mechanics, a work of aesthetic and political reappropriation, the long-awaited reverse shot of the conquest of American West.

Published between 1970 and 2006, Tony Hillerman's series of novels which follow the trail of Joe Leaphorn and his junior Jim Chee were for many an introduction to Navajo culture. In 1991, under the aegis of Robert Redford, the documentary filmmaker Errol Morris (author of the recent Pigeon Tunnel, dedicated to John le Carré) attempted to adapt one of Hillerman's stories, casting the role of Leaphorn in a actor of European origin, Fred Ward. Disagreements between Redford and Morris led to the latter's departure, and The Dark Wind remained unpublished in the United States (it was briefly released theatrically in France). His producer had to disown him.

“Indian stuff.”

In 2002, Tony Hillerman told the Los Angeles Times that a talent agent told him that "the only way to sell it [for an adaptation] was to get rid of all the Indian stuff." Twenty years later, Robert Redford, who ultimately remained the rights holder, is once again in the Dark Winds credits, as executive producer. This time, the creator, Graham Roland, the writers, directors and performers come from different Native American nations and the “Indian stuff” is the very essence of this fiction.

Roland is a veteran of action series, from Prison Break to Jack Ryan. It is undoubtedly in this area that we must look for the origin of the classic side of Dark Winds. The series opens with a spectacular heist in the streets of Gallup (New Mexico), followed by a helicopter escape that lands the robbers in the heart of the Navajo reservation. The FBI agent in charge of the investigation (Noah Emmerich, in a dark version of the character he played in The Americans) enlists the services of a gifted newbie, Jim Chee (Kiowa Gordon), who presents the advantage of being Navajo himself.

We are at the beginning of the 1970s, and the screenwriters play on the friction between daily life on the reserve, its deprivation, its pastoral way of life threatened by the reality of the market, the shadow of the war in Southeast Asia. , the rebirth of Native American activism. On their way, the duo of investigators will see the emergence of classic figures from the American noir novel – the corrupt police officer, the evil business tycoon.

A new building

On these familiar foundations, Dark Winds builds a new building, crossed by strange air currents. From one season to the next, magic and belief seek their place in the necessarily rational thinking of the police. Bernadette Manuelito (Jessica Matten), Leaphorn's deputy, relies on the plants and rocks of her territory to keep the forces of evil at bay. Symmetrically, the men who made the reservation a war zone include in their ranks a witch who masters destructive magic.

All this is not easy to stage, and Dark Winds sometimes becomes didactic in its constant desire to represent in all these aspects a thought, a culture that American fiction, from The Last of the Mohicans to the revisionist westerns of the 1970s, has always been considered from the outside. If they slow down the action, these digressions - like the one which evokes the program of forced sterilizations in Navajo country, perverse consequence of a law on family planning passed in 1970 - also take the price of a story which knows how to be contemplative .

Often dialogued in the Navajo language, these sequences offer the actors the space necessary to deploy characters who gain depth over the episodes. Zahn McClarnon, who also plays the role of a benevolent police officer in the formidable Reservation Dogs (of which Disney France is still waiting for the third and final season), gradually lets the fragility of a man worn down by the contradiction between the two definitions of his mission: the official one who would like him to maintain American order on the territory conceded to the vanquished, the unofficial one who makes him the protector of his people against this same American order.