The film, National Parks Adventure, aims to stir its viewers, as producer Shaun MacGillivray puts it, “to get off their couches and get outdoors.” Its destination of choice is the U.S. national parks, which are celebrating their centennial as the National Parks Service in 2016. MacGillivray and his crew used every IMAX 3D trick at their disposal, from jaw-dropping, aerial footage of sun-splattered landscapes to in-your-face encounters with furry, squeaky creatures like prairie dogs.
As if the visual feast weren’t enough, the film also serves up actor/environmentalist Robert Redford as narrator, climber Conrad Anker as narrative focal point, and a track by rocker Bruce Springsteen as rousing irony. Missing from the parks buffet is, as usual, the story of the system’s future – the one filled with diverse peoples who not only enable the parks’ continued existence but, as the impending nonwhite majority in this country, provide the political, economic and spiritual wherewithal to ensure the future of the planet.
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The film gets off to such a promising start with its mention of Native Americans and their belief that this country’s “natural wonders belong to no one – they belong to us all.”
But to go from that utterance to Springsteen’s “This Land is Your Land” renders most everything in between not only as antithetical, but also as a continuing indictment of the National Park Service’s overwhelming whiteness. This land doesn’t appear to be made for you and me if a significant number of us are missing from the picture. And National Parks Adventure, which opens globally on Feb. 12, feeds this perception by illustrating the national parks experience as an almost exclusively white one.
The trick to solving the diversity issue, of course, is to actually begin diversifying. Otherwise, absent outside agitation, there’s little potential for recognizing that diversity indeed is an issue. The people affected aren’t at the table.
This is the challenge for MacGillivray Freeman, known for numerous IMAX hits including Everest, Dolphins, and The Living Sea. When asked about diversity in his film following a Seattle screening, Shaun MacGillivray, the president of the production house, hailed the film’s opening remarks about Native Americans. When asked if he’d considered actually showing Native Americans and other people of color onscreen, MacGillivray said, “If my crack research team had found a character with a more diverse story, we would have considered using one.”
Ryan Hudson may be no Conrad Anker, but he is a black professional snowboarder with a compelling backstory. Hudson grew up in and out of homeless shelters until, at 14, his life was changed by an introduction to snowboarding by Outdoor Outreach, a non-profit dedicated to empowering at-risk youth through outdoor activities. He was part of an expedition that attempted to climb Denali and was led by Anker, a fellow North Face ambassador.
Which likely was the reason Hudson was with Anker, his stepson Max Lowe, and friend Rachel Pohl at one of the film’s more spectacular stops in icy Pictured Rocks National Seashore. We know Hudson is in upper Michigan because Pohl mentions his presence. If you watch carefully, without blinking, you’ll see him on the screen, ever so briefly.
MacGillivray also said that the filmmakers also wanted to portray John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt, the architects of the park service, “who just happened to be white.” The only semblance of diversity is shown in some of the roll of user-generated content near the end of the 43-minute film.
These have to be viewed as missteps, not missed opportunities. The National Park Service should have known better; it lacks the moral leeway to allow a project to be executed with such blatant racial ignorance.
The National Park Service hasn’t delivered on pre-centennial promises to ramp up diversity efforts. Its ranks remain 82 percent white, about the same as its visitation, in a country that is 38 percent nonwhite and growing fast. Even the National Park System Advisory Board found that “despite ongoing efforts to address diversity gaps, the NPS is perceived by stakeholders as neither diverse nor inclusive.”
National Parks Adventure attempts to herald the national parks road trip as quintessentially American, but proves the conceit as quintessentially white American. When Springsteen belts out, “this land is your land,” a much too significant portion of this country is forced to disagree. In essence, MacGillivray’s work reflects too closely the agency it celebrates and adds itself to a film legacy dominated by sci-fi flicks that do not count on the presence of people of color in anyone’s future.