At its core, the documentary A Good Day to Die is the sort of film best suited for an audience that will most likely never see it. This particular audience is the one made up of people who with little to no knowledge of Dennis Banks or the American Indian Movement (AIM), the central points of focus in David Mueller and Lynn Salt's documentary, and is ultimately the audience that most needs to see this film the most. Instead, I suspect, the people mostly likely to watch A Good Day to Die are those that know a bit about either Banks or AIM or both, and may find much of the film to be a refresher course in a part of American history that has long been ignored. It is the former group that the documentary best serves, yet the latter group that will probably be the one who sees it, coming away with the feeling of wanting to know more. But the fact of the matter is that if you don't know about Dennis Banks or AIM, this is a great place to start.
A Good Day to Die serves the dual purpose of highlighting the life of charismatic Native American activist and political firebrand Dennis Banks, as well as tracing the origins of AIM, a politicized organization dedicated to the protection of Native people. Featuring interviews with Banks, several Native American activists, and a wealth of archival footage, A Good Day to Die weaves together a fascinating story of cultural and sociopolitical struggle that is a crucial part of American history, yet largely unknown by many people. Banks is the central focus of the film, and through a series of interviews, he recounts the story of his life. Removed from his home at an early age, Banks was placed in a government-operated Indian boarding school, where young Native children were stripped of their culture and language, and educated to be "normal" Americans. Indian boarding schools where children were beaten for speaking their native language are just one chapter in the dark and brutal history surrounding the treatment of Native Americans, and a crucial part of who Dennis Banks would become.
After running away from the boarding school, Banks joined the Army, after which he turned to alcohol in his civilian life, and ended up in prison, where he became politicized. In the 1960s, as protests against the Vietnam War were dividing the country, and the Civil Rights Movement was fighting to make America more inclusive for African Americans, Banks and other Native Americans began to gather in Minneapolis. This was the beginning of the AIM (American Indian Movement), a political action group that relied on militancy in a way similar to the Black Panther Party for Self Defense. AIM made headlines in the 1970s for occupying the office of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington D.C., a standoff against federal troops at the Wounded Knee monument in South Dakota, and a deadly shootout on the Pine Ridge Reservation, also in South Dakota. These three events are the ones most closely associated with AIM, though A Good Day to Die only really focuses on the incidents at the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Wounded Knee, while the shootout on Pine Ridge is treated as nothing more than a minor incident in the history of AIM, when it is really the one event most closely connected with the organization.
In some areas, A Good Day to Die feels like a more complete and comprehensive documentary most notably when it deals with the life of Banks himself. The portions of the film dealing with the formation and early days of AIM are also quite interesting, but those familiar with both subjects will likely feel that the documentary falls short towards the end. Crucial information about the American Indian Movement is either barely mentioned, or not mentioned at all, and as a result, the film feels a bit incomplete at least for those who have more than a passing knowledge of the subject matter at hand. As an example, the film never really touches upon the incalculable damage wrought upon AIM by the FBI through their Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO), and that is a huge part of the picture. And while the film does a solid job of profiling Banks, other key AIM members are not presented as fully realized portraits, but more as half-finished sketches. Still, despite these problems, the film does work as a whole, especially as an introductory lesson, serving as a nice companion piece to Michael Apted's seminal 1992 documentary Incident at Oglala, or Peter Matthiesen's book In the Spirit of Crazy Horse.