WRESTLING ALLIGATORS: THE NEW SEMINOLE WARS
documentary, 90 minutes, not rated, 3.5 chiles
Seminole tribal leader James Billie is a tough-as-nails Renaissance man who smashes through life’s obstacles. Using stunning never-before-seen archival and home-movie footage, director Andrew Shea paints a revealing portrait of Seminole Indian life before and after the rise of casino gaming. As a “half-breed,” Billie was an outcast at birth; his mother prevailed against tribal elders who wished to see her infant drowned. During his teens, he became an alligator wrestler, earning $300 a day. Watching him wrestle down the reptile doubles as a personality reveal: teenage Billie was agile, fearless, and a shameless showboater. After two tours of duty in Vietnam, Billie returned to the Everglades as a war hero, rising to the ranks of tribal chief. Intentionally or not, the film captures the 1980s SoFla vibe: At one point Billie mentions using his military background to train tribal members to track down cocaine traffickers who used the tribe’s isolated Everglades roads. Interspersed throughout the film are musical interludes from Billie, who has recorded several country-blues rock albums — his 1999 song “Alligator” was nominated for a Grammy.
Heeding the Seminole’s history as the only tribe to never sign a treaty, Billie opens a bingo hall in Hollywood, Florida, in 1979, legally outmaneuvering the state’s enraged leaders. Through the use of newsreels, interviews with the law enforcement officers who failed to apprehend Billie, and several journalists who covered the story that gripped southern Florida throughout the 1980s, the film succeeds in conveying just how audacious Indian gaming was to the non-Indian public. During Billie’s 22-year tenure as tribal chairman, Seminole members went from rags to riches. In 2007, the tribe bought the Hard Rock Casino empire for just under a billion dollars. The tribe’s ranks swelled, thanks to the dubious arrival of “dividend babies” produced by the romantic unions of outsiders who married tribal members. But when Billie learned tribal leaders had been skimming tens of millions of dollars, he was fired by the tribal council and returned to a humble life, building traditional chickee huts by hand. Proud and defiant, though, Billie will get his redemption in the end. — Casey Sanchez Jean Cocteau Cinema, 5:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 21; 3 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 23
Wrestling Alligators: The New Seminole Wars