Joanelle Romero: From Hollywood to the Red Nation
by Sandra Hale Schulman
When you grow up in Hollywood and your mother appears with Elvis Presley in 9 movies, stars in your eyes are inevitable. For Joanelle Romero (Apache), that stellar vision led to a promising career then some eye-opening facts about the harsh reality of Native women in the industry. Rather than accept it, she did something about it in a big way.
In 1977, Romero starred in the first U.S. film about the life of a contemporary Native woman, which was also the first time a Native woman played a title role, in a film called The Girl Called Hatter Fox. Since CBS aired the TV movie 41 years ago, network television has not produced another show with a leading Native woman.
“My feeling is, if we are not represented in film and television, if we’re not seen, we don’t matter,” says Romero, “and when we are rarely seen it’s as a victim. That had to change.”
Romero realized she couldn’t wait for someone else to tell their stories, so she took action and created events and organizations. In 1994, Romero produced a pilot episode the Los Angeles Times said “could be a national first: a TV series about contemporary tribal life, written, directed, produced, and acted by American Indians.” But her vision and ambition was too early. Home, Home on the Rez gained national media attention, but was never picked up. She acted in several films including Pow Wow Highway and Black Cloud. She worked with director Oliver Stone, had her music career launched by Leonard Cohen, and Michael Jackson, a childhood friend, backed her first production company.
In 1994, Romero took bigger steps and using her industry connections launched the Red Nation International Film Festival designed to showcase Native involvement in television and film. While attending the Indian Market in Santa Fe with the new Film Festival, she wondered why there was no live music in the Plaza to go along with the art market. Organizers told her the crowd wouldn’t go for that but she felt she knew better, so rounded up a stellar group of native musicians including Litefoot (Native Business Magazine Publisher Gary Davis), future Grammy award winner Bill Miller, Joanne Shenandoah, Michael Horse, John Trudell, Robert Mirabal and the American Indian Dance Theater.
The concerts were a big success and laid the groundwork for a more inclusive cultural gathering. Her festival led to Red is Green Carpet Events, Native Film Market-Indigenous Filmmaker Showcase, Red Nation Conversation Series, Native Youth Matter Film Series, Native Women in Film & Television, LGBT Two-Spirited Film Series, Indigenous Film Series, Native Film Labs, and RNCI Red Nation Awards — broadcast live on the Red Nation Television Network — a streaming channel she started up before Netflix and Hulu in 2006 that reaches 10 million viewers in 37 countries. The channel has over 300 films and is the leading Native owned and operated film network.
“People always ask me how I do all this,” Romero says, “the answer is I just go ahead and do it, no one else is going to do this for us. I find the funding, I get the equipment. I take these festivals on the road from Los Angeles to Santa Fe and Washington D.C. and Las Vegas. Next year we’re going to Paris and Germany. I’ve had multiple offers to buy me out that I turned down. We have to keep control of our own narrative. My biggest honor lately has been invited to be a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, I’m one of only four Native women members. I’ve got some big announcements coming up soon too, I’ve also written a book about my life called “I Forgive You” that will be a revelation.”
Romero’s activism and unfortunate personal experience led her to start up #WhyWeWearRED. During a news conference at the Santa Fe Indian Center during Market week, a panel of six women and one man spoke about pioneering and supporting the call to action with a media coalition made up of some of the top native organizations in the world. It aims to increase Native women’s presence in films and television, drawing on other feminist activism such as the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements.
“We all bleed red — all of us,” Romero said. “That’s why it’s so important, the power of inclusion.”
She’s currently heading up a few film productions and documentaries and planning The Los Angeles 24th RNCI Red Nation Film International Festival that runs in early November 2019. She will be screening the groundbreaking film Powwow Highway she stars in with A Martinez, Wes Studi, John Trudell, and Gary Farmer.
“When I was little and stepped out on a stage for the first time I knew this was the life for me but I had to find my place in it,” she says. “I practiced speaking into a hairbrush while I found my voice. I’ve got to keep busy with all this because we’re 500 years behind.”