|Ramapo Mountains at Ramapo College|
Just in time for Christmas, the season of brotherly love, comes a Hollywood film that, according to one reviewer, takes its marquee-star hero on a revenge mission into “the backwoods inbred portal of hell that is Bergen County, New Jersey.”
That’s how New York Magazine reviewer David Edelstein describes the center piece of Out of the Furnace, a newly released feature film directed by Scott Cooper. It features Christian Bale as a Pennsylvania steel worker who journeys after his brother, an Iraq war vet who disappeared into an underground fighting ring in some dark corner of Jersey.
“A movie like Out of the Furnace needs an especially sadistic psychopath to hold our interest, and it has one in Woody Harrelson as a man called Harlan DeGroat. He organizes brutal fights, deals drugs, and kills people in the rough hills of Bergen County, New Jersey,” Edelstein notes. “… a glance this morning at the local headlines confirms that its denizens are fighting mad over Cooper’s use of family names of current Ramapogh Native Americans — in particular DeGroat and Van Dunk. I don’t blame them a bit for thinking they’ve been slimed.”
That review, and an incendiary one in the New York Post that seemed to relish rehashing malicious myths about natives of the Ramapo Mountains, were cited Wednesday in a panel discussion at Ramapo College in Mahwah, NJ. A promontory on the mountain ridge across the Ramapo River from the state college is Stag Hill, which hosts the headquarters of the Ramapough Mountain Lenape Indians.
“Elements of this movie bring back stigma not only for the people, but the mountains, which impacts this college,” said Professor Michael Edelstein, an organizer of the panel discussion. The gathering of about 150 people included students, faculty members, college President Peter Mercer, Mahwah Mayor William Laforet and other community leaders, Chief Dwaine Perry and several other members of the tribe.
Laforet recalled growing up in Mahwah when youngsters taunted and tussled with each other over ethnic backgrounds. “We didn’t know better,” he said. But, he added, things have changed in Mahwah, a former farming and factory town that’s now the upscale suburban hub anchoring the northern end of the jam-packed Route 17 commercial corridor that defines modern Bergen County.
“This is the first time that I can recall that this community has stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the Ramapough Mountain Indians,” said Laforet, who earlier this month held a news conference with Chief Perry to denounce the Hollywood movie. “This is a moment in our history.”
“The movie is nothing more than a sensational attempt to generate money by degenerating and insulting part of our American culture,” Laforet said December 6 on WCBS Radio. “This type of stereotype only serves to foster hostility, intimidation and bullying.”
At the same news conference, Perry questioned the motive for making such a film: “Why the hatred? Why the reliving of what is obviously racism and bigotry throughout history toward the [Ramapough] people.”
Neither Laforet, Perry or other speakers at the Ramapo College forum bought the filmmakers’ assertion that the movie was “not based upon any particular person or group of people,” as stated by a spokesperson for Relativity Media, the film’s production company. Judith Sullivan, an attorney working with the tribe, noted that the film “lists seven characters as Jackson Whites”—a mythical name for Ramapo Mountain natives that’s been circulated in newspaper and magazine articles for generations. “As a lawyer, I cannot believe this film was approved by the legal department.”
“This movie clearly has been aimed at us,” said Vincent Mann, chief of the tribe’s Turtle Clan. Even before this film came out, he recalled, he was accosted by three teenagers who drove up to the tribal community center on Stag Hill looking for “Jackson Whites.” Asked where they learned about this name, the boys said “they found out about it on Weird New Jersey,” a website that promotes state oddities.
Perhaps the most impressive speaker on the panel to address the “hillbilly” stereotyping of Ramapo Mountain people, which I encountered as whispered “fact” when I first moved to New Jersey in 1965, was Richard DeGroat Thomas, chief of the tribe’s Marten Band in Staten Island, NY.
“I’m not one of the people in the [New York] Post who eat squirrels. I design multi-million dollar buildings,” said Thomas, a Columbia University-trained architect, who was wearing a beaded buckskin jacket. Thomas said he saw this film in California, while visiting his children, who work in the film industry.
He said the best way to counter such a “negative” movie is to do “something positive.” In a discussion with audience members, who broke into groups to propose actions to take, Thomas said he’d like to see a movie about the real traditions and real lives of members of his tribe.
“I think events like this are very important,” said a student at the table where I was sitting. Another student asked if the college had a Native American minor—and if not, why not. Furthermore, she added, “college tours should explain the origins of the college’s name.”
Another audience member said New Jersey public schools should teach more about the Lenape Indians, the ancestors of the state’s remaining Native Americans. “And when you meet people using these stigmas, immediately address this,” he added.
This reminded me of a recent discussion at a veterans’ art workshop sparked by news articles about this film. A veteran from the Jersey City area recalled that, during the Vietnam war, his Army reserve unit had to lay over in Mahwah during a convoy to a training camp in New York State. The soldiers were warned not to go into the nearby hills, because that’s where the fearsome “Jackson Whites” lived. So some of the troops, of course, snuck off to the nearest bar in the area—and nothing happened, he recalled.
Another Vietnam vet, who grew up near Mahwah, interjected, objecting to the “Jackson Whites” myth-making. “I knew a lot of those guys,” he said. “They’re like you and me.”
Well, Vietnam veterans know a bit about negative stereotyping. The list of Hollywood movies depicting crazed Vietnam vets engaged in gratuitous, gruesome violence is long. Indeed, one of those films—starring a Hollywood icon trying to save a fellow vet from a Pennsylvania mill town who disappeared into suicidal Russian roulette matches in a mythical part of Vietnam—is the model for Out of the Furnace, according to reviews.
“Remind you of The Deer Hunter much? It should. Out of the Furnace, simmering with Rust Belt malaise, echoes Michael Cimino's epic about Pennsylvania steelworkers and Vietnam,” notes Rolling Stone reviewer Peter Travers, whose gee-whiz commentary utterly misses the point, the underlying elements of egregious exploitation.