In contrast to the racial tensions and anti-refugee sentiments of the bordering United States in recent years, Canada has projected a public image of a more welcoming and tolerant nation. But like their American neighbors, it has a dark past of racialized oppression, particularly as it relates to the displacement of its indigenous people. Based on her own childhood experiences, Tracey Deer sheds a sobering light on a recent memory of such displacement with her narrative feature debut Beans.
Set in the year 1990, tells the story of a young Mohawk girl named Tekehentahkhwa who goes by the nickname Beans. Living with her parents and younger sister Ruby on a reserve in Quebec, she is preparing for major developments in her life. She hopes to be accepted to a prestigious school outside of the reserve to eventually fulfill her dream of becoming a doctor or lawyer. But Beans’ optimistic worldview is about to change when a local protest devolves into an armed standoff between the Mohawk community and the local authorities. As they fight to protect their ancestral land from a golf course expansion, racial tensions reach a boiling point, putting Beans and her community in grave danger.
Striking a tricky balance between heartwarming family drama and a gritty docudrama, Deer frames the story from an authentic child’s perspective. Starring bright-eyed performances from Kiawentiio and Violah Beauvais, the protest starts out as just another fun family activity. Indeed, Beans is more immediately concerned with her own coming of age and the related introductions to alcohol and the opposite sex.
While this innocent sentimentality sometimes threatens to undermine the gravity of the situation, Deer’s perceptive screenplay palpably reveals the ways in which Beans is deeply affected by the Oka crisis. As she becomes awakened to intolerance, Beans vows to “toughen up” and fight back. And through it all, Kiawentiio skillfully conveys that growth from cheerful curiosity to indignant furor. Meanwhile, Rainbow Dickerson is also a standout as her protective mother, tapping into raw emotions of fear, rage and despair.
On the strength of its performances and overall filmmaking, Beans successfully weaves together an affecting drama. But perhaps the most potent aspect of the film is its archival footage. Amid the effective recreations of the tense atmosphere, it is these documentary scenes that show the true racist colors of the white citizens. As is often said, truth is stranger than fiction. Likewise, racism is often worse than we want to imagine.