Scott D. Pierce: ‘Dark Winds’ blow for Robert Redford at last, as Leaphorn/Chee series comes to AMC

Series, based on Tony Hillerman’s mystery novels, features Native Americans on both sides of the camera.

Tony Hillerman’s novels centered on Native American lawmen Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee are set in the Four Corners area — mostly Arizona and New Mexico, spilling over into Utah at times.

The same can be said for “Dark Winds,” the new AMC series based on Hillerman’s novels. It spills over into Utah a bit, and not just because Robert Redford is one of the executive producers.

(The series premieres Sunday at 7 p.m. on Dish and DirecTV and 9 p.m. on Comcast. It also streams on AMC+)

Redford, by the way, optioned Hillerman’s Leaphorn/Chee novels way back in 1986, and he’s been trying to bring them to the screen ever since — with very limited success. This time, he got an assist from “Game of Thrones” author George R.R Martin, who’s also credited as an executive producer.

“It’s been 35 years in the making, but George and Bob were both fans of Hillerman and all of us were as well,” said director Chris Eyre, a member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes. “So, to bring that to the screen now is just a dream come true.”

Make no mistake, “Dark Winds,” a taut, engaging murder mystery, is not about the white guys. Most of the producers, including executive producer/showrunner Graham Roland, and all of the writers are Native Americans. (Three of the six writers are Navajo.) Most of the cast is Native American. As is a large number of crew members.

I certainly can’t say that the six-part series accurately reflects their experience, but they can. And they did.

“I’m just saying it’s a long time coming,” said Kiowa Gordon, who stars as Jim Chee. “Good things happen to those that wait and I think we’re all born to be here.”

(Michael Moriatis | AMC) Executive producer/director Chris Eyre and Kiowa Gordon as Jim Chee during the production of "Dark Winds."

“Dark Winds” opens with a spectacular and very violent bank robbery in Gallup, New Mexico. The scene shifts to the Navajo reservation, where tribal sheriff Joe Leaphorn (Zahn McClarnon) is investigating the murders of an old man and a young woman — in an environment in which he’s both a member of the community and distrusted by many because of his role.

“He’s dealing with straddling that fence between his job and his culture,” said McClarnon, who’s also an executive producer on the series.

Arrogant, racist FBI agent Whitover (Noah Emmerich) thinks the bank robbers may have fled to the reservation, and he offers to help Leaphorn with his murder investigations if Leaphorn helps him with the his bank robbery investigation.

Leaphorn is skeptical. “I will pretend that your bank robbers are Navajo, if you pretend my two murder victims are white,” he says to the FBI agent. “Let’s see which one of us does our job quicker.”

Chee, who has long since left the reservation behind — he’s assimilated into white culture, as much as any Navajo can — joins Leaphorn’s small department as a deputy. And, while he’s not what he seems, the two of them drive the investigation forward through unexpected twists and turns.

“Dark Winds” is sort of a modern-day film noir set in 1971 — with a bit of mysticism mixed in. (One of the characters is a very scary practitioner of black magic.)

(Michael Moriatis | AMC) Ryan Begay as Guy Atcitty in "Dark Winds."

There’s a whole lot going on in the six episodes, not just with the crimes and investigations, but with the characters. It’s filled with cultural touchstones that are largely — mostly — unfamiliar to non-Native viewers. And the Monument Valley scenery, made famous in John Ford’s classic Westerns, is spectacular.

As for the Utah connection, well, there’s a family of four from Provo — “a Mormon family just passing through” — who, through no fault of their own, get caught up in the drama. They’re described as “a bunch of Mormons” who are “cheap as all get out, even more so than the rest of them.”

And to tell you any more would definitely be a spoiler.

“Dark Winds” does an amazing job of blending a gripping mystery with the Navajo cultural elements. They’re each fascinating on their own, and together they take this series to another level.

McClarnon is nothing short of amazing as Leaphorn, who keeps his cool even though his personal life is fraught. Gordon is great as Chee, as is the cast overall.

Redford and everyone else involved in “Dark Winds” should be proud.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Redford welcome the crowd to Opening night film of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, "Crip Camp", at th Eccles Theatre in Park City, Thursday, Jan. 23, 2020.

Is the third time the charm?

“Dark Winds” is the third time Redford has managed to bring a translation of Hillerman’s novels to the screen. And it hasn’t been easy.

“Thirty-five years is a long time to try to get something made,” Roland said, “and it shows the passion that Robert Redford had for this project and the importance … of getting a story like this put in front of a mainstream audience. So a lot of credit goes to him for keeping up that fight for so long.”

Two decades ago, Redford expressed frustration that for more than 15 years he’d been unable to convince Hollywood studios to produce theatrical movies built around the characters of Leaphorn and Chee.

“I put so much into this,” he said back in 2002. “I’ve struggled with Tony’s pieces for many, many years. … It was kind of a much harder road than I was anticipating because of the lack of support for the Native Americans on a stand-alone basis. I mean, it was OK when you had Native Americans symbolically representing one side of an equation that allowed the guys in the white hats to be good guys. But it was quite another thing if you said, ‘Let’s make a film dealing with this culture.’”

Redford was decidedly unhappy with the 1991 film “The Dark Wind,” which was directed by Errol Morris and starred Fred Ward as Leaphorn and Lou Diamond Phillips as Chee. It ended up going straight to video.

More than a decade later, Redford reluctantly turned to television, producing three films for PBS’ “Mystery!” — “Skinwalkers”(2002), “Coyote Waits” (2003) and “A Thief of Time” (2004) — that starred West Studi as Leaphorn and Adam Beach as Chee. The movies did well for PBS, but the series ended after three telefilms.

Chris Eyre, who directed the new series “Dark Winds,” also directed “Skinwalkers” and “A Thief of Time.” And his 1998 film “Smoke Signals” — which screenwriter Sherman Alexie (who is from the Spokane and Coeur d’Alene tribes in eastern Washington) based on his short-story collection, “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven” — won the Filmmaker’s Trophy and Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival that year.

AMC holds out the possibility of a second season of “Dark Winds,” but no decision has been made yet.

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