Rewriting the West as Multi-Cultural: Legend Meets Complex Histories in la Frontera in John Sayles' Lone Star (1996)
- Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies
- Center for the Study of Film and History
- Volume 33, Number 2, 2003
- pp. 19-25
- View Citation
- Additional Information
Kimberly Sultze | Special In-Depth Section Rewriting the West as Multi-Cultural: Legend Meets Complex Histories in Ia Frontera in John Sayles' Lone Star (1996) Kimberly Sultze St. Michael's College The idea of the frontier is extremely well established as cultural common property. Ifthe idea oflafrontera had anywhere near the standing ofthe idea ofthe frontier , we would be well launched toward self-understanding , directed toward a realistic view of this nation's position in the hemisphere and in the world.1 —Patricia Nelson Limerick (1994) My feeling, basically, is that I've made a lot of movies about American culture and, as far as I'm concerned , it is not revisionism to include MexicanAmerican culture orAfrican-American culture or any of the many other different groups. If you're talking about the history of the United States, you're always talking about those things, from the get-go.2 —Writer, director, editor John Sayles on his film Lone Star Over the past century, the idea of the frontier as a defining place and phase in the history of the United States has taken on mythic status. During the mid-1990s, the traditional conception of the frontier in the American West was being challenged from two different directions, but with similar aims and results. In published histories, Patricia Nelson Limerick was arguing for a revised historical conception of the West as la frontera—a new term for a new recognition of the different groups that populated and defined the history ofthe West. At about the same time, in a depiction ofthe West on film, John Sayles was rewriting the typical Western story to highlight the intersections among racial and ethnic groups, and placing it along the Rio Grande in a fictional Texas border town called Frontera. Patricia Limerick has written extensively about the need to redefine the idea of the frontier in American history—and in the public imagination—as more inclusive and less ethnocentric. She is one of a group of historians, sometimes referred to as "the new historians of the American West" or "revisionist historians," who are critical of simplistic stories of ruggedly-individualistic white men taming the wilderness and bringing progress, and who have attempted, through their works, to recover the diversity and complexity ofthehistory oftheWest.3 In 'TheAdventures ofthe Frontier in the Twentieth Century," Limerick argues that a better model than the frontier is lafrontera. Lafrontera refers to the borderlands between Mexico and the United States, and in a broader sense, also to the borders between countries, peoples, and authorities. From Limerick's work, a number of characteristics of la frontera, this reconceived and rehabilitated 'frontier,' can be derived4 : Lafrontera is conceived as a running story, not as a neatly corralled model with a clear beginning and end in time (history) or in space (geography), nor with a simple solitary direction of movement east to west. Lafrontera is less ethnocentric than the frontier, acknowledging that the West was and is multicultural, or as one scholar has expressed it, was "an intergroup contact situation ." In lafrontera, historical situations involve cultural and moral complexity, and social, political, and economic power relationships among groups are recognized. Reductionism is avoided, as Limerick writes: "Trying to grasp the enormous human complexity oftheAmericanWest is not easy under any circumstances, and the effort to reduce a tangle of many-sided encounters to a world defined by a frontier line only makes a tough task even tougher."5 Limerick and others, when considering representations of the American West on film, have been critical of what they argue are the reductionist and distorting dichotomies of the frontier story as it has been expressed in the classical examples of the Western film genre. This article examines and evaluates one notion of lafrontera expressed on film. In particular, I analyze John Sayles' Lone Star (1996) as an attempt to move beyond genre conventions and reconceptualize and renegotiate the ideas of the frontier and the West on film. Sayles strives on many levels to represent the West as la frontera, a place of complexity, where members of ethnic groups are characterized as individuals more than types, and where Chicanas/os, Anglo Americans, African Americans, andAmerican Indians are shown...