A Well-Aimed Rock

Blake Pickens MBA ’19 is a Chickasaw film producer, stand-up comedian and TV writer. This past April, he was one of eight Native filmmakers selected for the Inaugural IllumiNative Producers Program, a joint project of Netflix and Illuminative, a female-led racial and social justice group. Pickens has produced two award-winning features, including “Wild Indian,”about a Native businessman with a secret in his past. His ad “The Talk” won an Emmy in 2018, and a John Legend music video won an MTV Music Video Award. Pickens earned an MBA degree from the LMU College of Business Administration. We talked to him about Native life, comedy, poverty and throwing rocks with purpose. Pickens was interviewed by Jim McDermott, S.J., associate editor of America magazine.

How did you first get into producing?

I was doing comedy. My brother, me and my cousin started a sketch comedy team at my grandmother’s house in her front room. But to someone living in poverty, entertainment is not realistic. If you want to get out of the neighborhood, you do business, you do law, you become a doctor, something that guarantees an income. So, I decided that I’m going to buckle down, be a 4.0 student.

I went to the University of Oklahoma, and I had a 12-year plan. I was going to become a plastic surgeon, because no one in Oklahoma was getting plastic surgery. So, I’d have to move to L.A. I would open a practice there, work on someone in the entertainment industry. They would be like, “You’re kind of fun and silly, do you want to intern?” And then I would quit plastic surgery and become an intern, and work my way up.

Then, my dad had a brain aneurysm. When he regained consciousness, he talked to us by drawing pictures on a clipboard. Eventually they took out the feeding tube, and he asked, “Hey, are you happy?” And I was like, “No, I think it’s pretty clear that given all of this, I’m not happy.”

He asked, “No, are you happy?” And I was like, “What do you mean, Dad?”

He said, “You could live your life being unhappy and still end up here, or you could try and be happy doing the things you love and still end up in this exact same place.” He hit me with some old Indian knowledge! So, I went back to school and changed my major to film and media studies. The plastic surgery path — 12 years? And then be an intern? Awful idea.

Storytelling can be just as extractive as an oil company. You go into a community, you tell their story, and then you take that story and sell it back to them. 

What was it like growing up Native American in Oklahoma City?

I always knew I was a Chickasaw, and it was important to me. This is my culture, these are my people. My dad had been in a boarding school, so a lot of times he was ashamed of being Native. That’s what you’re taught in those places: “Kill the savage, save the man.”

When I was 13, we moved to a suburb, and I started to become really ashamed. I could be friends with white kids at school, but I wasn’t allowed into their homes. Poor communities are more of a rainbow. People don’t necessarily care what you are — you’re all poor, you’re all in this together. So, that made it more accepting. I just wanted to be white so I could be accepted.

What enabled you to regain a more positive sense of self?

When I went to college, there were other Native people, and I realized we had all gone through a similar struggle and path. Instead of being ashamed of being different, there was power in being different together.

What has it been like pitching in Hollywood?

As the old guard changes, it becomes more open to diverse voices. But the note that I get constantly is “Make it more Indian.” A lot of times they want some feathers and sage. They want a dreamcatcher somewhere, someone who talks with their hands all the time.

Often they expect that if you’re Native, you grow up on a reservation. And that’s not the case for me. I didn’t grow up on a reservation and neither did a lot of other Natives. Being Native isn’t monolithic. In media we’ve been portrayed only as existing in the past and as these very stoic, solemn beings who only speak words of wisdom. And that’s not the case.

My whole thing is, I don’t want to make stuff on reservations. We’ve been there long enough, it’s time for us to be in other places, like we actually are in the real world. But when executives give you that type of note, most of the time I don’t think they mean anything bad. They just need you to explain why this is something that is Native.

I don’t fault the Native filmmakers before me for doing stories about reservations, because ultimately that was the only opportunity that they had. And without them doing that, there’s no chance for me to start here and have that to build upon. They all opened the doors to us, to the next generation to come through and tell the stories that we want to tell. I look up to them tremendously.

I understand you’re working on a feature about a Chickasaw Catholic priest. 

Yeah, it’s a horror film called “The Hermit.” In part, it deals with the trauma of boarding schools [for Native youth] that were run by the Catholic Church in the United States.

The story takes place in present-day Kentucky. A Chickasaw Catholic priest hears a rumor that there’s a hermit guarding a holy relic in the Appalachian Hills. The priest has Parkinson’s disease and believes that it’s God’s punishment on him for causing the death of his brother and friends when they were children at a residential school. So, he seeks out the relic in hopes of healing his disease and his past. But it turns out the hermit isn’t a myth, he’s real, and he’s willing to kill to keep the relic a secret.

The film is addressing what it is like when you lose culture, when it’s taken away from you. What does it look like when you fully become the thing that you were forced to be?

So, you see the priest as fully assimilated?

100%. He has left his community. But it’s all done in the context of a horror movie. I think you can speak to people better through genre. If you give people something entertaining but throw a message in it, you reach more people.

As a producer, how do you pick projects?

The way I look at projects is: Do they have a social mission that I agree with? Am I saying something? I don’t want to just make art for the sake of art. There’s value to that, but I don’t know that makes the world better or says anything. Anything that I pick, I have to believe that it’s saying something important that people need to hear. Hopefully the vehicle I can deliver that through is comedy. In my heart, comedy is where I want to be doing everything. I want to make the world a little happier than when I came into it. But I also use comedy to talk about things that are important to me and to remind people that these injustices still exist. Mel Brooks is the GOAT when it comes to comedy, film, TV, everything. “Blazing Saddles” is the best satire ever made.

I’m guessing many people reading this would be surprised to hear a successful Hollywood producer saying their main goal is to produce work with a “social mission.” Where does that desire come from?

For me it’s just the way that I have been taught that I should behave in the world. My mom is very much “Lead with your heart at all times.” My grandma as well. Ultimately everything I’m doing is so I can give back. I want to bring up other Native people, I want to be able to go to my community and feed everybody. I want no one in my community to ever have to worry about where food’s coming from, where their clothes are coming from or meeting their basic needs. My community is both Chickasaw and people in poverty. That’s where I come from, those are the people I know and that have known me, and I want to make sure that I’m always serving those groups.

What has LMU’s MBA program done for you?

A lot of the time, storytelling can be just as extractive as an oil company. You go into a community, you tell their story, and then you take that story and sell it back to them. There are positive things to representing a community in a new light, but it doesn’t help someone in poverty get anywhere. I want to use my MBA to start something that can help my community. I want to be building that bridge that doesn’t exist, that bridge that can actually get people to where being seen can actually matter, where being seen can mean an actual path. Aspiration is no good without a bridge to get there.

It sounds like you put a pretty heavy responsibility on yourself.

It does weigh on me, but I think it’s a good weight to carry. When I get into a room with people who haven’t talked to a poor person before, there’s an opportunity for me to speak to that. That’s a position of power that I can use. When I was a teenager, I was very much into throwing rocks at everything, because I was mad. The people in our suburb didn’t treat me right, and I was like, “I’m angry.” My grandmother told me, “If you throw a rock at a window, it’s going to break the window, and they’re going to hear you for a second, but then they’re going to build a thicker window. So, you’re going to have to get a bigger rock and they will build a thicker window, and eventually that window is going to be so thick they can’t ever hear you, and that rock’s going to be so big that you can’t pick it up and throw it. But if you get inside that building, and then you throw a rock, it’s going to hit somebody.” If I toss a rock now, they’re going to hear me. So, now I can actually start to change people’s minds about people in poverty and Native Americans, and hopefully start building that bridge, which is the ultimate goal.

Jim McDermott, S.J. is associate editor of America magazine. McDermott is a screenwriter and also writes culture commentary on TV, film, theater and other forms of pop culture. His “Looking for Sepulveda” appeared in the spring 2019 issue of LMU Magazine. Follow him @popculturpriest.