There are five cinematographers credited on the frustratingly shapeless documentary “Love and Fury,” one of whom is director Sterlin Harjo, and this is a sign from the start that this movie about Native American creative people will be too sprawling for its own good.
So many subjects are interviewed for “Love and Fury” that it’s hard to keep track of some of them, and this is especially difficult because Harjo does not identify his interviewees by name or profession on screen.
An opening title reads, “For one year we followed artists as they navigated their careers in the U.S. and abroad,” but most of the movie takes place in Southwestern areas of America like Oklahoma and New Mexico. The two subjects who begin to stand out the most are Micah P. Hinson, a foul-mouthed musician, and Cannupa Hanska Luger, an all-around performer and activist. As “Love and Fury” goes on, it becomes clear just how much stronger this movie would be if Harjo had focused on just the two of them, for they couldn’t be more different.
Hinson has a low, slightly mocking speaking voice, and he has had drug problems in the past. When his manager chastises him for smoking too much pot before a gig, Hinson is unfazed: “It helps conjure the spirit, man,” he says, in a deadpan tone of voice that can be read as sarcasm or as something more damaged. This feeling is deepened when Hinson talks about writing a song with the line “how mighty of us to choose suicide,” which he says prompted his wife to tell him he should put some sort of anti-suicide disclaimer on the album.
By contrast to Hinson’s tough and prickly intransigence, Luger is a very affable guy who travels anywhere to speak on Native American history; he is a sort of jack-of-all-trades. Throughout “Love and Fury,” we see Luger go from one space to another, speaking, listening, and finally creating a large beaded artwork to memorialize missing indigenous women in Canada. Through it all, Luger keeps his energy up and his options open.
But it is only after “Love and Fury” is over that it seems possible that a better movie could have been made about the difference between Hinson and Luger and the ways they have reacted to being a Native American artist. The actual movie, unfortunately, is filled with scenes that do not add anything to our understanding of all the many artists on view and how their work can be related to their dispossessed and oppressed heritage.
Why include a shot of Luger noisily defecating in a toilet almost right after we meet him? Why include a scene where a random girl with her face blurred out asks annoying questions of a female Native American rapper? Why crosscut between one of the many musicians interviewed here and a book event for Tommy Orange, a writer whose novel “There There” is about Native American history and alienation?
By including so many disparate figures, many of them musicians, Harjo invites us to make value judgements of what we see of their work rather than connections to who they are as Native American artists and how they might relate to each other. Several of the older Native American subjects in “Love and Fury” are dealt with so briefly that we only have time to take in their T-shirts, which have slogans like “Keep It Lakota,” and so the emphasis is disproportionately on youth.
Luger gives the film its title when he speaks about how his people have been able to convert fury into love, but love for whom? For themselves? For their oppressor? And what does this have to do with what Native Americans might distinctively bring to their creative work? There is a moment early in this movie when the very skeptical Hinson talks about a commercial he screwed up by deliberately skipping a key change on a song, and he seems to relish that the commercial fell through after he got fired from it. That’s the rebellious spirit that this movie should have been celebrating, but “Love and Fury” itself feels like a commercial that can’t figure out what it is ultimately trying to sell.
“Love and Fury” premieres on Netflix Dec. 3.
Correction: An earlier version of this review misidentified Cannupa Hanska Luger.