"The Activist" is an earnest but largely melodramatic thriller placed against the 1973 standoff between federal authorities and members of the American Indian Movement in the South Dakota village of Wounded Knee.
Writer-director Cyril Morin (who also composed the score) combines real-life and fictional situations and characters to tell this uneven tale of two Native American activists, Marvin (Chadwick E. Brown) and Bud (Michael Spears), who are dubiously arrested and locked up while the Nixon administration attempts to manipulate events — and further a secret political agenda — around the famed occupation.
It's an intriguing setting — and set-up. But a lack of subtlety in the writing and much of the acting (particularly Circus-Szalewski and Ron Roggé as a pair of good cop/bad cop jailers) mitigate the power of the caged men's plights as well as the movie's intended tension. As the action unfolds almost entirely within the walls of a South Dakota sheriff's substation, the film can't escape a stagy, at times claustrophobic feel.
Morin peppers his story with stock media footage and re-created news bits that effectively help contextualize it against the Wounded Knee occupation. However, a re-enactment of Sacheen Littlefeather's proxy acceptance — and rejection — of Marlon Brando's leading actor award at the 1973 Oscars, which Brando boycotted to protest treatment of Native Americans, feels wedged in.
"The Activist." No MPAA Rating. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes. At the Arena Cinema, Hollywood.