Martin Sheen narrates "Holy Man: The USA vs. Douglas White." (Rick Mayer / Los Angeles…)
The exceptional documentary "Holy Man: The USA vs. Douglas White" tells the haunting tale of White, a Lakota Sioux medicine man from South Dakota's storied Pine Ridge Reservation who, at age 72, was imprisoned for the alleged sexual abuse of his two young grandsons.
Years later, his grandsons, who were ensnared as children in a family custody feud, confessed to lying at White's trial. But White, whose case this film asserts symbolizes the racial bias Native Americans frequently face in the U.S. courts, remained incarcerated until 2009, when he died at 89 from lung cancer.
Director Jennifer Jessum, who also co-produced and co-shot the film with Simon Joseph, adeptly contextualizes White's story within the painful and complex Lakota and Pine Ridge history.
Strong narration by Martin Sheen, along with interviews with various Lakota members, elders and leaders, including activist Russell Means and late singer-actor-advocate Floyd Red Crow Westerman, help flesh out the tribe's past while also highlighting a present often marked by abject poverty, suicide, unemployment and alcoholism.
Several of White's family members, including his ex-wife, grandsons and even the boys' troubled mother who instigated the seemingly far-fetched abuse claims, also intriguingly comment here.
But it's "Holy Man's" gorgeous visual palette, augmented by an uncommonly effective series of reenactments (seamlessly edited by Jessum), that truly elevates this absorbing effort.
"Holy Man: The USA vs. Douglas White." No MPAA rating. Running time: 1 hour, 24 minutes. At Laemmle's NoHo 7, North Hollywood.