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A touching portrait of an activist

Native American poet and activist John Trudell has never been the kind of guy to keep his mouth shut or his pen still. With more than 30 years of civil rights and environmental advocacy, a 17,000-page FBI dossier, and nearly a dozen poignant spoken-word recordings under his belt, the blunt, charismatic Trudell has made a lifetime of riling up people as much with words as other protesters do with actions.

For the past decade, filmmaker Heather Rae has researched and spoken with Trudell and his devotees -- a list that includes Robert Redford and Bonnie Raitt, as well as Angelina Jolie (who executive produced this film) and a host of prominent Native Americans -- to create the documentary tribute ''Trudell." Through a whirlwind of interviews, archival reels, and stock images, Rae tracks Trudell's journey as an orator and thinker.

The film's first half is highlighted by stirring footage of Trudell's early days in the Native American rights movement of the '60s and '70s. The documentary's chronological flow hinges on an event that occurred at the peak of his political work: the mysterious 1979 fire that claimed the lives of his wife, three kids, and mother-in-law. Abandoning organized politics, Trudell reacted by turning his attention to the blend of spoken word and music with which he forged his legacy as a Native American icon in the '80s and '90s.

Unfortunately, the crux of the documentary also serves as its unraveling. While Trudell's grief gives new direction to his life and work (''Putting [my family] into the ground reconnected me with the earth," he says), Rae's film loses its focus when dealing with the next 20-plus years of his career, illustrated with long, somewhat redundant selections from his performances and albums.

Despite the rambling finish, however, overall the film is a thought-provoking and graceful portrait of a tenacious peace warrior whose frankness is his greatest weapon.

Erin Meister can be reached at

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