After premiering at SXSW earlier this year, filmmaker Billy Luther‘s (Navajo, Hopi and Laguna Pueblo) narrative feature debut Frybread Face and Me hit the festival circuit and GLAAD has followed it since. The Native-rich, coming-of-age story executive produced by Taika Waititi as well as Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato (RuPaul’s Drag Race) screened at the Toronto International Film Festival before Ava DuVernay‘s production banner ARRAY acquired it. With a strong team supporting, Frybread Face and Me will debut on Netflix and in select theaters on November 24.
Luther’s documentary work includes award-winning Miss Navajo and Grab as well as the short docu Red Lake. He is also a writer and director for the AMC series Dark Winds. As his first narrative feature, Luther wanted it to be a personal story. In a recent interview, he told GLAAD in a recent interview that it’s been six years in the making which is a short amount of time for a narrative feature, surprisingly. Frybread Face and Me illustrates Luther’s experience as an “urban Indian”.
Frybread Face and Me stars Kier Tallman, Charley Hogan, Martin Sensmeier, Kahara Hodges, and Sarah Natani and follows a Navajo adolescent obsessed with Fleetwood Mac and his cousin. Both from different worlds, they bond during a summer on their grandmother’s Arizona ranch, learning more about their family’s past and about themselves.
“It took me a couple years to write,” Luther admitted, explaining that his experience living on and off the reservation with his grandmother’s house almost being the midpoint between the two. “I always felt kind of like an outsider going in… I still feel it as an adult.”
“There was really no judgment with my grandmother, but we had a language barrier,” said Luther. “I felt that this could be a story — and it isn’t just my story. I’ve been on the festival circuit and many indigenous and non-Natives have said, ‘Oh my god, it reminds me of home and my experience of being disconnected from a culture and community!'”
Read GLAAD’s interview with Luther below.
In a time when people are starved for and policing authenticity, what are the challenges in creating a story that has so much cultural nuance, especially when it comes to queer and indigenous identity?
It’s so it’s so funny that you mentioned that because, I watched it again at a screening on the ARRAY campus and it was really interesting because audiences, mainly all non-Natives were laughing, and they were just entering this world I presented on screen. The nuance of Navajo culture is sprinkled throughout the film that is just two kids coming of age.
I just dove into just what I remember. There were specific things that were on my grandmother’s walls that I had placed with the art team. It also really helped having a Navajo crew that weren’t really an art department — but they built everything from what their grandmother’s homes look like. It felt Navajo and that was important to me. We treated it like it was [my grandmother’s] home and everybody kind of just felt like she was their grandmother. Her energy was just so strong in every scene and on set.
How did you approach adding queerness to the narrative?
I really dove into my personal experience and how my aunties and uncles treated me and supported and challenged me in certain ways. Benny is 11 years old in the movie and at that time, it just doesn’t really matter, You’re not necessarily identifying something, but also to the parallel of the grandmother living in Hózhó, which is balance and harmony — and that is Navajo culture, balancing that male and female. It’s equal.
We don’t have really have a English term for “gay” but I guess you’d say “queer”. We’re considered our holy people and our medicine people. I think that’s really interesting, because as Catholicism and Western influence came into our culture and communities, we started getting these ideas shifted. That wasn’t necessarily part of our core beliefs.
I just have to sprinkle these little moments of my memory where my aunties allowed me to out on makeup with no judgment, but I had to hide it… there’s that line.
Was there something you didn’t expect to learn about yourself while making the film?
I don’t know if this will answer, but one of the things that I really understood on set and filming, that every scene had something — a line of dialogue or a prop where there was a personal connection for me. I got emotional at times, especially when I was filming grandma. My grandmother passed away a week before we started filming. Every way I filmed “grandmother” reminded me of my grandmother. After that experience with my grandmother a week before, I just wanted to be in her world. That’s where my documentary experience came into play. I told the camera crew, “let’s just be in her world and not necessarily, you know, find the right spot where she needs to stand”. You can see there’s an element of being a fly on the wall just following her.
What would it have been like for you to see a film like Frybread Face and Me when you were younger?
That’s kind of one of the reasons why I wanted to be a filmmaker. I just never saw myself on screen. I think that would have shifted my perspective and outlook as a Native kid. The images that I saw [Native people] were the ones with the big nose, the ones on Tom and Jerry or the Redskins. It was very barbaric and savage. The younger generation deserves to see themselves.