As you drive through Jemez Pueblo in central New Mexico, if you pull off the west side of Highway 4 onto Big Bear Road you quickly find yourself drifting back into time. The roads are dusty. The homes are old adobe dwellings. This is where you can find Fannie Lucero, who is both Walatowa (Jemez) and Laguna Pueblo, in the home where she was born and raised.
Lucero is the lead actor in a groundbreaking film called She Sings to the Stars. It is a rare feature-length movie in that a Native actress plays the lead. It is set in the Southwest, and Lucero plays Mabel, a Native grandmother who lives alone in her remote home tending to her cornfield and singing to the stars.
A few years ago, the day before the annual Feast Day at Jemez Pueblo, Lucero found herself in Albuquerque running errands and picking up her grandson from a book launch. That is where fate interfaced with destiny and brought the producers of the film together with Lucero.
“This one woman kept talking to me and she sat by me. Out of the blue she asked, ‘Have you ever thought about being in a movie?’ It shocked me. I thought, not really,” explained Lucero, who currently resides with her husband on the Gila River Reservation in Arizona. “Then she asked, ‘Would you like to be in a movie?’ I said, ‘I guess so.’ In my mind I’m thinking about all those Indian movies I’ve seen where there are old Indian ladies making fry bread. I thought it was something like that.
“She asked me to audition,” said Lucero. “She rushed out to her car and came back with a script to practice. She was the casting director and had called the director and producer and said, ‘You have to meet this lady.’ As soon as they saw me they were curious about everything. They left, and about two or three weeks later I got a phone call and they told me I got the part!”
“When we did her screen test the whole screen lit up,” said Jennifer Corcoran, the film’s director and screenwriter. “It was amazing. Fannie had just an amazing presence on screen and a natural sense of timing and rhythm in the way she delivered her lines. It wasn’t like she was trying to play a part.”
“Jennifer told me, ‘This is your movie; you’re the star,’” said Lucero. “She told me not to change anything—don’t cut your hair, don’t dye your hair and don’t get a facelift. Just stay who you are.”
The movie is filled with images and characters—in particular, a flamed-out white magician who winds up at Mabel’s house looking for water.
“The magician is sort of your collective neurotic white man,” said Corcoran. “The characters arrive on your doorstop, and you have to live with them. I think what was really funny is that he’s wearing a black hat. A lot of Native people tell me that the Mormon people wear black hats. As with the magician, I think the so-called dominant culture thinks it can do anything. It can make anything. It can pull rabbits out of a hat. It can control anything.”
The film premiered at the American Indian Film Festival in San Francisco in 2014. It was re-edited and officially released in September 2015. It has won many awards.
Corcoran said the story came to her in a series of dreams. “I used to live here in the Southwest, and I’ve always been a dreamer. I had a series of dreams many years ago where the same elder kept appearing,” said Corcoran. “Over the years I’ve come to really respect dreams, understanding that they arrive at a certain time. You don’t make them up. I had a dream about this woman, Mabel, who came to me, and she was sitting on the back porch.
“She said, ‘It’s time to sing the song.’ That was the beginning of it. I was given these instructions and I had to figure out what does this mean? It all came together. It took me a long time. It was a lot of about listening to people. I was a perpetual student, and it made me feel very humbled.”
For more information on She Sings to the Stars, visit shesingstothestars.com
Harlan McKosato is the director of NDN Productions, a multimedia company based in Albuquerque. He is a citizen of the Sac and Fox Nation of Oklahoma.