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"Reservation Dogs" creator on evolving the show's representation & storytelling: "It's not finished"

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Sterlin Harjo's journey to becoming a filmmaker began with watching movies with his dad, when he was a kid growing up in Holdenville, Oklahoma. His family wasn't rich, but this dad's friend worked at the local cable company and got them HBO.

"We just devoured those movies, and they had a profound influence on me," the "Reservation Dogs" co-creator recalled in a recent conversation. "When you're from a small town, you gravitate towards pop culture. And it kind of helps you. I mean, It's like mythology, right? It's like, cinema is our form of storytelling and mythology, and it helps inform how you handle conflict, and how you move through life."

Harjo's coming-of-age in the 1990s informs the "Reservation Dogs" world. The title may be a nod to Quentin Tarantino's era-defining flick, but the mood he, co-creator Taika Waititi and the writers braid together threads of everything '80s and '90s cinema: from "Platoon" to "Friday," to from "The Goonies" to "The Lost Boys."

But coming of age stories like "Stand By Me," "Rumble Fish," "The Outsiders," and "Boyz n the Hood," films where the young heroes face darkness, most directly influence the first season. When you understand that, you get why the title is also a misdirect.

It implies that Bear (D'Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai), Elora Danan (Devery Jacobs), Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis) and Cheese (Lane Factor) are a band of thieves or even vigilantes, that people think they're cool. All that is wishful thinking.

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Bear can't fight. Willie Jack and Cheese just want to hang out. Elora Danan is the one among them who has enough ambition to realize their California dream, but that mission floats on an ocean of unresolved sadness.

Their adventures form the heart of the show, Harjo said, "but [it's] also about living life, and kind of how pop culture helps sort of guide you through this life, through the darkness. And that's an escape, right?"

But for millions of people who watch those mentioned and never saw don't see anyone who looks like them in them, it's also an arrival.

Indigenous teens don't have a "Stand By Me," or popular movie comedies devoted to illuminating their experience. When FX greenlit "Reservation Dogs," Harjo and Waititi seized the opportunity to create their own coming-of-age stories. This time Indigenous young people get to be the ones making us laugh, cheer or cry, in story produced by an all-Native writers' room.

This matters, of course. What resonates with the audience are the show's universally relatable themes of impatience and youthful naivete, and our first experience with massive loss experienced anew through these characters.

"I love storytelling from underrepresented communities," Harjo stated. "I love storytelling. I love foreign cinema. I love European cinema, I love Latin American cinema. I don't........

© Salon

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