Diversity, Representation and The Revenant

An interview with actor Duane E Howard


Kimberley French / Twentieth Century Fox

“I had to go inside myself—go back into my past life of the dark experiences. I had pretty challenging times when I was young,” says Duane Howard, who plays Elk Dog in the Oscar-nominated film, The Revenant.

Howard, who grew up in Port Alberni before moving to Vancouver as a teenager, spent years living on the Downtown Eastside while dealing with addictions to drugs and alcohol, though he has now been sober for decades. Howard explains that his memories of that time were influential in his performance.

Since his time on the Downtown Eastside, Howard has earned a diploma in substance abuse counselling and has worked for years helping people across Canada overcome their addictions.

“I think that you really have to educate yourself first and get through all of your own issues before you can really accomplish anything in life,” he says.

Based on the rugged and difficult lifestyle of 19th-century fur-traders, The Revenant follows real-life folk hero Hugh Glass, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, as he struggles to escape the dangerous and unforgiving wilderness of the northern Louisiana Purchase after surviving a bear attack.

The conflict of the plot is driven largely by the fierce competition and enmity between the colonial fur-trappers and the nearby bands of Arikara and Pawnee First Nations, often resulting in violent and deadly clashes. There are a number of times when Glass encounters Howard’s character, the Arikara leader Elk Dog, who is on a mission to find his kidnapped daughter Powqaa, who is portrayed by Northwest Territories actress Melaw Nakehk’o.

Since its release, The Revenant and Leonardo DiCaprio have both been nominated for a plethora of awards. After receiving a Golden Globe for his performance, DiCaprio concluded his acceptance speech by dedicating his award to the indigenous communities and First Nations people that were represented in the film. This was a timely tribute that preceded the controversy over a lack of diversity amongst the Oscar’s nominees this year, and the overall underrepresentation of non-white racialized groups in Hollywood.

Despite the fact that people have raised this issue in previous years, the representation of non-white actors in contemporary media still remains relatively minimal, and this is especially true when it comes to First Nations people.

“They’re still on the bottom of the ladder in all areas of this industry. There hasn’t been a really good movie out since Dances With Wolves,” says Howard. “[It’s] kind of sad, don’t you think?”

Perhaps films like The Revenant–which employed and cast a large number of First Nations people, is a sign that these issues are finally starting to be addressed in a meaningful way.

“You have to see this movie because it is the greatest movie of all time,” Howard says. “Best director and DOP (director of photography), but also a great cast. Some of the scenes in this movie are amazing.”
When asked if he had any ideas for specific roles he would like to play in the future, Howard replied, “Yes! I would love to play a badass villain where people just hate me.”


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