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Oscar Winner Taika Waititi Is Producing A TV Show About Native American Teenagers

The hilarious director Taika Waititi has joined forces with Native American filmmaker Sterlin Harjo to bring the first mainstream show about Native teens to American television.

New art unveiled for the FX show "Reservation Dogs," to be released in 2021, at Disney's Investor Day in December 2020. | Walt Disney Company
New art unveiled for the FX show "Reservation Dogs," to be released in 2021, at Disney's Investor Day in December 2020. | Walt Disney Company

The first show about Native Americans produced by Native American and Indigenous people is coming to FX in 2021 — and its writers room is going to be “entirely composed of Indigenous writers,” according to The Hollywood Reporter.

Oscar-winning filmmaker Taika Waititi and director/producer Sterlin Harjo co-created a show called “Reservation Dogs,” which will be a “new half-hour comedy series about four Native American teenagers growing up on a reservation in eastern Oklahoma,” according to Disney. Harjo is an Oklahoma-based Native American filmmaker who is part of the Seminole and Creek nations, and Waititi is from New Zealand and of Māori ancestry, the indigenous people of that country.

The show concept was announced in 2019 but now officially has a home at the television network FX and will air in 2021. Disney said the show is in development, and Oklahoma officials confirmed that the team concluded filming the pilot there this summer, though the COVID-19 pandemic caused interruptions in filming. The details were first shared during Disney’s 2020 Investor Day presentation last week, where the company unveiled 60-something new Marvel and “Star Wars” movies and TV shows as well as other projects and committed to 100 total new projects in the new year. Disney is the parent company of FX Networks.

Native writers and other tribal members celebrated the news as a “big f*cking deal” on Twitter:

The title of the show as well as the art released with it by Disney seem to confirm that it’s a nod to the cult classic “Reservoir Dogs” from filmmaker Quentin Tarantino.

The Oklahoman reported that the teenage main characters of the show “spend their days committing crime - and fighting it.”

Waititi, who won an Oscar for “Jojo Rabbit” in 2019, is a Disney and FX favorite: he directed the Marvel blockbuster “Thor: Ragnarok,” will direct its sequel, “Thor: Love And Thunder,” will also a new “Star Wars” movie, and is behind the hit comedy “What We Do In The Shadows” on FX. He has a history of including indigenous people and history in his projects, like the Aboriginal and Māori references peppered throughout Thor. Waititi also worked with the Indigenous community behind the scenes, prioritizing hiring many of them as crew members for the film — calling it a “responsibility” — and inviting them to perform an important welcoming ceremony when the movie started filming.

“You wouldn't really start a movie in New Zealand without asking the local tribe to come in and bless you and send you to work with some good mojo. Especially if you're on their land, you're in their backyard, it's sort of just nice manners to get in touch," said Waititi, according to Mashable, who described the ceremony as one that “acknowledges the traditional custodians of the land and welcomes visitors.” 

Harjo has also directed several feature films and a documentary that all focus on Native American storytelling and are set in his home state of Oklahoma.

Though current depictions of Native people on American TV and in pop culture are scant and sometimes problematic, Harjo and Waititi are part of a growing group of creatives hoping to change that. And they are finally getting attention and approval from executives in an industry still dominated by white people.

Hollywood Reporter recently listed some of these upcoming shows, like Peacock's “Rutherford Falls,” which will include “television's first Native female showrunner, Navajo and Mexican American filmmaker Sierra Ornelas, and a writers room that is 50 percent Native” and Netflix's “Spirit Rangers,” from showrunner Karissa Valencia, a Chumash tribal citizen, which is also written by an all-Native writers room; “and the in-development NBC series ‘Sovereign,’ co-executive produced by Navajo filmmaker Sydney Freeland and [Bird] Runningwater.”

There has been some significant movement on Native issues in the U.S. in 2020, as the summer’s massive racial justice protests brought further light to long-existing indignities. The Washington Football team announced in July that it would finally change its racist name and logo after decades of lobbying by Native activists, and just this week, the Cleveland Indians baseball team announced that they will be changing its name in 2022 (though many are wondering, why not do it now?).