Woman Walks Ahead is based on a true story about New York City painter Catherine Weldon. She went to the Dakotas and painted a portrait of the Sioux Chieftain Sitting Bull. Parts of the story are true, parts are not. Overall I found the events improbable in the way they were told, but there’s no denying that the artist and the warrior met and paintings were done.
Jessica Chastain played Catherine Weldon. She was a rebel in her generation in the 1890s, and became a strong advocate for the rights of native people after her interactions with Sitting Bull.
Michael Greyeyes played Sitting Bull. Greyeyes was one of many Native American actors in the film. I thought his portrayal of Sitting Bull was the best thing about the film – better than Jessica Chastain, if you can believe I would make a statement like that!
The relationship and trust the two developed was the heart of the story, the humanity in the story, and the strength of the story.
Silas Grove (Sam Rockwell) is an army officer who does his best to get Catherine to go home, but she cannot be persuaded. Even after a beating she doesn’t leave. Chaska (Chaske Spencer), also in the army, was the nephew of Sitting Bull and spent his time helping Catherine and keeping his uncle informed about what was going on with the army.
There were glancing mentions of the Battle of the Little Bighorn and the Battle at Wounded Knee. There were realistic looking Ghost Dances. There were references to Sitting Bull’s time with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. The white horse that Catherine eventually rode was a gift from Buffalo Bill.
The white horse was important because it had been trained to dance when guns were fired in the Wild West Show. The Sioux attached special meaning to the dancing of the horse later in the story.
The majority of the action revolved around a new treaty that the government wanted signed. It would reduce the amount of land the Sioux people had. The Sioux voted against it, but the government took the land anyway.
This wasn’t a great film, but it was a good one. The beautiful prairies and hills in New Mexico where it was filmed, the many Native faces, the absolute grit and courage that Catherine embodied all combined to make it worth a look.
The film was directed by Susanna White. It’s currently available from Prime Video and other streamers.
Time Magazine ran a story detailing the facts behind Woman Walks Ahead. Be sure to read all the way to the end of the article for important corrections. Or read the trivia for the film on IMDB to get much of the same information.
Here’s the trailer.