Beginning with her first feature film, Sydney Freeland (Navajo) has strived to create and present accurate, compelling images of Native American and Indigenous people on screen.
2014's Drunktown's Finest, which she directed, a story of three people overcoming hardships of life on the reservation, was awarded the Sundance Film Festival's Jury Prize and went on to receive the Jury Prize at L.A. Outfest.
Freeland is currently hard at work on a landmark project, the first-ever broadcast television network show centering on Native Americans. NBC has given the green light to a put pilot for Sovereign, which Freeland co-wrote (with Shaz Bennett) and has signed on to executive produce with Bird Runningwater and Ava DuVernay under DuVernay's production company, Array Filmworks.
After growing up on the Navajo reservation in New Mexico, Freeland graduated from the Academy of Art University in San Francisco and then attended a writers program in Santa Fe before she was accepted into the Fox Writers Lab.
Then, with her film degree but without a job, she went back home to the reservation – although not for long.
Freeland was in the parking lot of a Walmart in Gallup, NM on a Friday night when she got the phone call that would set her career in motion. It was from a TV producer who had received her resume, asking if she could meet him at the Starbucks in Westwood that Sunday. She hastily gathered up some things and hit the road for LA. During the meeting, she nailed down the job as a production assistant on a cooking show.
The rest, as they say, is on her filmography. She directed all six episodes of the Emmy-nominated indie web series Her Story. Freeland's second feature film, Deidra and Laney Rob a Train, premiered at Sundance in 2017 and is currently streaming on Netflix.
Her list of TV directing credits includes The Wilds, Rutherford Falls, Grey's Anatomy, P-Valley, Nancy Drew and Fear the Walking Dead.
Reflecting on Drunktown's Finest during a lengthy and lively phone conversation, Freeland talked about the challenges of getting it financed, and how the needle may have moved forward since then. The main investors wanted her to change one of the characters to a white person, or half-Native and half white.
"Compare that to today," she says. "I've directed a couple of TV shows with Native content, and the conversations with the showrunners are about how do we get this right. On the Native side, being open and being collaborative I see what I hope is a genuine shift of execs and showrunners of getting it right. For me that contrasts wildly with the first feature film, which was 'make it white, so we can sell this thing.'"
"When I started that first feature, it came from the idea of not telling a white savior story or to have simple characters. I grew up in a diverse and dynamic place, and wanted to show that, which led to three different characters: a straight Navajo guy going off to the military, a woman adopted by white people and a transgender woman trying to get off the reservation."
She points to a couple of episodes of the Grey's Anatomy spinoff Station 19 as another example of moving the needle. "I brought up in casting to make one role Native, a character found in a park, a non-descriptive role," Freeland says. "Even having that was great, and little things over time can add up."
Looking back in time, Freeland remembers watching John Wayne movies with her father. "A lot of those are sort of racist caricatures – the antagonist, the gentle archetype, the wise elder or the warrior. Beyond that, there were white actors portraying Natives. It was a weird thing. Everyone knew it was inauthentic and not the actual experience, but any representation was great."
Starting off in the business, Freeland felt like most others had a head start and that Hollywood was a monolith with gatekeepers. Still, she cracked through barriers.
"There's no one way in to the industry. You just have to be willing to put in the work. I didn't know or wasn't related to anyone, and didn't pick up a camera until I was 24," she says. "Learning to cope with and accept rejection is the norm in the industry. Dust yourself off and look at things and try to improve. Creatively the best advice is every rejection is an opportunity to make content better."
"It's a small community and we all know each other. Sierra and I are the same age and went through the same program, and now she's a showrunner. How great is this? Sterlin Harjo comes from indie film, and we share war stories. Over the past few years we've interviewed for the same projects. We'll call each other afterward and download information," she says.
"One thing that is very promising, At a recent WGA [Native and Indigenous Writers Committee] meeting there were 36 people, and I didn't know a dozen of them. I thought, this is great, this is amazing."