“History is not history, but the present” seems to be a theme that is played out over and over, especially in a lot of the films of the last two years or so. Writer-director Tracey Deer‘s “Beans” takes place during the 78-day standoff between the Mohawk people and the government of Quebec in 1990 but could just as easily been the Standing Rock protests in South Dakota in 2016. We often feel like history is repeating itself when in reality, it is just one constant struggle that has never been resolved. Now imagine being a young child trying to find yourself in the world amidst all of this strife and chaos — force to grow up fast to face the reality of hatred and bigotry. That is where Deer’s young protagonist Beans finds herself — between childhood and adulthood and caught between two competing cultures — that of her Mohawk people and the white settler culture that surrounds her.
The film opens with twelve-year-old Beans (Kiawentiio) on her way to an interview for a prestigious school, an opportunity that could change her life. But does she have to compromise herself and stifle her true identity to be a part of that world? That is the underlying question at the heart of this story — it’s all about self-identity and finding your true voice. Young Beans is a smart, ambitious, and determined girl who hasn’t fully stepped into her power and is often timid and has a hard time speaking up for herself — so much so, her father thinks she should toughen up (the world will do that soon enough).
Beans is trying to find herself all the while the world around her is a powder keg about to explode. The local Mohawks are trying to protect their sacred burial grounds from the encroachment of a trivial white settler golf course. This leads to a standoff between the two sides and the Mohawk people commandeering a major bridge. Both sides dig in as tensions rise and the emotions, distrust, and hatred boils over. During this 78-day standoff, people try to continue on with their lives, but there is always a lingering feeling of uncertainty and fear.
As a way of coping with the changing world around her and coming into her own, Beans falls in with an older, more rebellious crowd. She tries her hardest to fit in with this new crowd, much to the chagrin of her family as they fear she could jeopardize her way to a better life. As this bunch starts to influence her more, her attitude towards the new school and white settler culture begins to change too. After a harrowing and terrifying incident with her pregnant mom and younger sister, Beans feels like she can’t take much more injustice nor can she continue to succumb to fear tactics. Soon, she finds herself lashing out towards strangers and even the police, jeopardizing herself and the safety of her family. Along the way, Beans also has a run in the woods with the older crowd where she finds herself alone with a boy and in way over her head — all of which threatens to shatter her childhood innocence. Life escalates fast as the film turns into a fight for survival.
Director Deer does a thoughtful job of balancing the youthful innocence with finding your place in a changing, hostile world — one that no longer wants you around. Even as adults that is a lot to take in and deal with so confronting that as a child is all the harder and even more delicate to convey on the screen. There is the constant pull between embracing your heritage and fitting into the mainstream society — being a strong individual versus fitting in with the crowd. But the film does balance them with sensitivity as we process the world through Beans’ eyes.
Many of the hateful, vitriolic scenes in which Beans and her family have to confront the hatred and violence of the white settlers is heartbreaking, yet all too familiar. It’s a scene that we see played out on the nightly news night after night. And to think that it was all over a golf course — but it’s not, it’s much more than that — its about sovereignty and dignity and self-respect. “Beans” is about that on a broader, cultural level but also on an individual level. We empathize for this family — we feel their hurt and fear because of the raw and visceral performances (especially that of Violah Beauvais who plays Ruby, Beans’ younger sister). And the effective usage of interspersed archival news footage helps to drive the tension and fear of home while serving as a history lesson for events that may not be well-known outside of the communities affected.
In the end, Beans does find her voice, herself, and her place in the world around her while Deer drives home a powerful message — especially for younger generations — about being proud of who you are and your heritage even when the outside world is pushing back.