Beans opens with the principal of the prestigious Queen Heights Academy butchering the name of 12-year-old Degahandakwa, also known as Beans (Kiawentiio). The story follows Beans as she and her family join their community to defend traditional lands, home to the Kanehsatà:ke and Kahnawá:ke Mohawk communities.
This is a recounting of the 1990 Oka Crisis: a standoff between the Mohawk communities and the Canadian government over a proposal to level a forest and a burial ground in order to extend a golf course from the nearby town of Oka.
Beans is semi-autobiographical for director Tracey Deer, who was 12 years old at the time of the 78-day-long Oka Crisis. Her coming-of-age story of figuring out her place in the world is condensed into the character of Beans, and events portrayed in the movie — like people throwing rocks at her family’s car — come from real-life experiences.
The journey that Beans makes from the start to the end of the film is one of strength and bravery, but also one of vulnerability. She faces the complexities of growing up and discovering herself alongside an armed and violent invasion of her community by the Québec government — and eventually the Canadian military.
Naturally, being a young girl, she has a vastly different experience from the adults in the resistance. What Beans does experience is the violent racism from the nearby town’s citizens as they yell slurs at her and her family, refuse to let them buy groceries, throw rocks at her car, and attack her people and land. The tension is high, and she senses this — even if she doesn’t fully understand the entire complexity.
Snippets of television broadcasts were inserted into the film to give context and a definitive statement that these horrific events were not fictional elements of the film but recent, factual history. In the archived television compilations, the audience sees how Canadians were resentful, hateful, and aggressive toward the Mohawks, one man saying, “I don’t give a shit if they die.”
Beans comes to befriend the spunky and tenacious April (Paulina Alexis). Beans asks April how to become tougher, a desire that seems to stem from her wanting to stand up for the rights of her people. April teaches her how to fight dirty, start swearing, dress up, drink, and hang out with the older kids. Through their blossoming and unlikely friendship, April helps Beans develop her confidence and ability to stand up for herself, while Beans helps April to acknowledge the strength in vulnerability.
The pain that Beans feels over the hostile mistreatment of her community eventually turns into aggression, partly because of the influence of her new group of friends. However, her mother, Lily (Rainbow Dickerson) — another central figure for Beans’ development — influences Beans with her resilience and non-violent approach, even in the face of violence.
The film showcases the empowerment of Indigenous youth and their continued resilience. By the end, Beans has grown to become a strong and determined individual who knows what she wants. She accepts her admission offer to what she called a “stupid, stuck-up white kid school,” in order to make friends and so people will never throw rocks at her and her community again.
She shows up to the first day of class looking into a room of her white classmates, a touch nervous, wearing a hair tie embellished with the Haudenosaunee confederacy belt, and introduces herself using her real name with an unwavering sense of pride.
This story was an important one for Deer to tell, and the harsh realities that it shows are important to reveal to a large Canadian and international audience. It is a film about recent history, but it still applies today, as Indigenous people continue to defend their land from pipelines, housing developments, and other infringements.
The backlash they receive today from some Canadians is not unlike that which is seen in the film. The Oka Crisis is still part of the collective memory of many Mohawk and Indigenous peoples, in addition to their experience of present injustices.
Additionally, the government is as unwilling as ever to acknowledge treaty rights and unceded land, one of the most recent examples being the invasion of the sovereign, unceded territory of the Wet’suwet’en. In an interview with Bonnie Laufer Krebs, Deer said: “As a society, we need to make that space for my people. So, I really want people to leave feeling motivated to go back into their lives… to use that power to help us.”