There is no genre that defines American cinema as much as the western. During the early days of Hollywood, the western reigned and the cowboy was king. On the other hand, women in westerns have historically been relegated to side characters as homesteaders, prostitutes, or damsels in distress. Woman Walks Ahead, directed by Susanna White and written by Steven Knight, subverts these time-worn, generic expectations to create a tender meditation on social injustice. Jessica Chastain stars as Catherine Weldon, an obstinate widow who travels from Brooklyn, New York to North Dakota in the 1800s to paint a portrait of the legendary Lakota Chief Sitting Bull. Weldon faces harsh scorn from the local white townsfolk while Sitting Bull and his people fight to keep their land from being robbed, and their culture from being expunged at the hands of the American military. Woman Walks Ahead elegantly repudiates the hyper-masculinity and xenophobia of the classic “Cowboys and Indians” narrative by focusing on the western’s marginalized characters. I spoke with Susanna White on the western genre, the film’s environmentalist message, and her representation of the Lakota people at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Caroline Madden: What was it about Woman Walks Ahead that made you want to direct?

Susanna White: I grew up loving westerns. I grew up in England where we have these great skies, small mountains, and it's all quite hemmed in. To see these massive landscapes and widened spaces with big skies was really thrilling for me growing up. But there was an aspect of westerns that I just didn't connect with because all the actors were men and very masculine. What appealed to me about Woman Walks Ahead was that it was a very different take on a western because our eyes and ears were a very strong woman and a woman without a voice in society. It also gave a very different picture of Native Americans than what I’d seen portrayed in the movies before — or at least in westerns. Sitting Bull was really sophisticated and funny, and clever and spiritual. I'd been looking for an epic film — something like The English Patient — the sort of film that doesn't get made anymore. As soon as I read it, I really fell in love with it, I think because it's about such a strong woman. I was so happy I got the chance to make it; it’s such a passion project for me.

One of the things I find the most fascinating about the western genre is its malleability. In the past ten years there have been a wave of feminist westerns such as Meeks Cutoff, The Keeping Room, and The Homesman. Woman Walks Ahead certainly fits within those parameters, but you specifically describe it as an anti-western. Why is that?

Because you don't see much violence on-screen; you feel the consequences of violence. It was amazing to see it play the other night; when Jessica is hit with the rock there was a gasp in the cinema. That's normally not what happens when someone gets hurt in a western—it's just ignored and you're on to the next person whose shot. Sam Rockwell’s character is suffering from all the violence that he's seen in his life. There's a very powerful scene where Sitting Bull thinks about the guilt he's felt bringing about the murder of the women and children, and that's all I wanted people to take away—that these characters feel the consequences of the violent acts they’ve committed. There’s also a big environmental message in the film that these were people who lived in harmony. I think in this time of crisis on our planet we can learn a lot from their culture.

There is a danger with this kind of story to have the focus only be on the white characters, or have a white savior narrative. Were you conscious of trying to avoid that?

I was very aware of the responsibility of being an outsider telling this story. Catherine’s so far from being a savior. She's a witness to a terrible act in history and she doesn’t save anybody. That's the tragedy of the film really; she just witnesses some appalling historical events. Catherine Weldon was this remarkable figure who continued to campaign after his death — Sitting Bull’s — all her life, until she died, for Native American land rights. She was way ahead of her time. She’s naïve, I think, not this sophisticated white person going out to save people. It’s Sitting Bull who is sophisticated. He makes fun of her when she goes, “I’ve traveled many miles, over many hills and rivers. . .” But then they find that equilibrium and he encourages her to be herself and appreciates her in a way that gives her true freedom. He understands her for who she is, not what society expects her to be. In that scene where he says, “Live more,” and she says, “Yes, that’s all I want to do,” he appreciates her as an artist at a time when women weren’t allowed to be artists, only what their fathers and husbands said. He just lets her be herself. That’s quite a modern idea.

Sitting Bull and Catherine Weldon have a complex and interesting dynamic. What was it like working with Michael Greyeyes and Jessica Chastain?

First of all, I’m a firm believer in that accident of fate when your piece of DNA lands on the planet. I could've been born in medieval times or Victorian times; it just happened I was born when I was born. And so essentially people are always people and maybe the circumstances of the time you're born affect you, but basically human emotions are the same: We laugh and we cry and we feel anxious and all those things of consequence. So what mattered to me above all else was getting really truthful performances. It was a joy to work with Jessica [Chastain]. She's one of the greatest screen actresses we've got. There was a great discovery in Michael Greyeyes. When I spoke with the tribal elders, they kept saying to me how Sitting Bull had this quality of gentleness and spirituality and that’s one of the things I found in Michael. He was also someone the camera completely loved: Smart, funny, and everything I wanted people to see in Sitting Bull. I did a chemistry read for him and Jessica and it was fierce, there was a real connection between the two. I was just incredibly lucky in this cast.

During one of the most pivotal scenes when Sitting Bull and his tribe defend their rights to their land, they speak their own language and another character translates. What was the decision behind that?

That was a very important choice for me. It's virtually a dead language. The Lakota people are trying to preserve it and teach younger generations because it is dying out. I met a few elders who speak it, but there are not that many people who speak it anymore. It was very important for me that you should hear Catherine was an outsider coming into their world and that that land belonged to them — although Sitting Bull believes you can't actually own land — but that was their sacred land and we as white people were coming into it as outsiders. A way of giving that culture a proper weight was to have them speak their own language.

What kind of research did you have to do to for this period piece?

The biggest thing I did, was I spent time with the Lakota elders and spoke with them about Sitting Bill. The number one thing everyone says when you ask about Sitting Bull was that he was a great spiritual leader. He was this wise man. He has this wonderful saying in the film, “your society values people by how much they have, and ours by how much they give away. You think you can own the land, you think you can buy the skies.” That idea of owning property is so alien to him. So I think there's a lot of wisdom to be learned from him. I felt it was so important [that] this story was told because his death and the death of his people at the Wounded Knee massacre was this terrible episode in history.

What do you want audiences to take away from this film?

At the end of the movie you should be left with the sense that these were real lives at stake, and this terrible piece of history happened. Sam Rockwell’s character says “I wanted history to go in a straight line not in a circle.” That’s what I’d like to see. I'd like to see things move forward, to have these spiritual lands be respected. I wanted the land to be a very strong character in the film to get that strong environmental message across. We have a responsibility to our planet because we live on it. It's there before any of us are born and it's there after we die. The Lakota people particularly lived in harmony and they taught us not to exploit or deplete our land. I think there's a strong message for our planet in Woman Walks Ahead from the Lakota people to learn to respect nature.

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Interpreting films can often be the best part of watching them — check out our op-ed Evaluating the Feminism of “Woman Walks Ahead.” For more coverage of female filmmakers, watch our Women in Film video series, featuring profiles on Ava DuVernay, Greta Gerwig, Jane Campion, and Lucille Ball. And while you’re at it, check out why we love Aubrey Plaza.