Sydney Freeland: From Navajo Nation to the MCU – How Echo Amplifies Native & Deaf Voices

Sydney Freeland: From Navajo Nation to the MCU – How Echo Amplifies Native & Deaf Voices

Renowned trans Navajo filmmaker, Sydney Freeland, has always been drawn to the magic of inclusive storytelling, a realm that was once elusive in the world of TV and film. Now, armed with substantial budget resources, she’s steering the ship into the next chapter of cinematic excellence.

Marvel’s Echo, in its fifth episode, takes a groundbreaking turn as it immerses viewers into a Choctaw Nation powwow, a unique moment for the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). This cinematic feat, featuring Alaqua Cox’s Maya Lopez, engaging in a face-off against the notorious Wilson Fisk, was Sydney Freeland’s brainchild. She pitched the idea by connecting her childhood love for Marvel Comics with the vibrant memories of attending powwows.

Sydney Freeland
From left: Zahn McClarnon as William Lopez, Devery Jacobs as Bonnie, Graham Greene as Skully, and Tantoo Cardinal as Chula Battiest in Marvel Studios’ Echo. CHUCK ZLOTNICK/MARVEL STUDIOS

Freeland, the MCU’s first openly transgender director and a Fulbright program alum, has brought a fresh perspective to Echo, a series that breaks new ground in many ways. It introduces Marvel’s Spotlight banner, indicating accessibility to all audiences, MCU fans or not, and it’s the first to be simultaneously streamed on Disney+ and Hulu, with all episodes released at once.

Sydney Freeland
Alaqua Cox and director-executive producer Sydney Freeland behind the scenes of Marvel Studios’ Echo. CHUCK ZLOTNICK

Set in a fictional Oklahoma reservation, Echo is a “grounded, visceral, and at times bloody” narrative, focusing on the first deaf, disabled, and Indigenous lead character. Freeland, with her unique background and experiences, promises an unparalleled viewing experience, having enjoyed an unprecedented level of creative freedom.

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Freeland’s journey to Marvel began on a Navajo reservation near Gallup, New Mexico. Initially studying computer animation, she later found her passion for filmmaking, inspired by her love for comic books and the rich artistic community on her reservation. Her career took off after a Fulbright scholarship, leading to her MFA in Motion Pictures and Television.

Sydney Freeland
Alaqua Cox as Maya Lopez in Marvel Studios’ Echo. CHUCK ZLOTNICK/MARVEL STUDIOS

Echo’s setting, a Choctaw reservation in fictional Tahama, Oklahoma, reflects Freeland’s commitment to authentic Indigenous representation, steering away from caricatures. Freeland’s directorial portfolio includes a diverse range of projects, from Netflix’s crime comedy Deidra & Laney Rob a Train to an Emmy-nominated web series, Her Story.

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Working on Echo, Freeland embraced the challenge of a Marvel TV series, combining big-screen resources with a TV production schedule. The series features Alaqua Cox, a deaf, amputee Choctaw actress, as the lead. Freeland prioritized connection, fostering a collaborative environment by ensuring her team learned American Sign Language (ASL) to communicate effectively.

Despite the challenges of a Marvel TV production, Freeland’s meticulous preparation and over-communicative directing style helped steer the ship through the organized chaos. Her unique background and experiences, coupled with her commitment to authenticity, shine through in Echo’s portrayal of Indigenous cultures and communities.

Sydney Freeland
Devery Jacobs and director-executive producer Sydney Freeland on Marvel’s Echo set.

In crafting Echo, Freeland collaborated closely with Indigenous consultants, writers, and language experts, ensuring an authentic representation that goes beyond mainstream stereotypes. The series delves into Plains Sign Language, an endangered form of signing, adding another layer to the rich tapestry of Indigenous cultures explored in the narrative.

Sydney Freeland’s transformative journey from a Navajo reservation to the helm of a Marvel TV series showcases her commitment to pushing creative boundaries and rewriting the norms of superhero storytelling. Echo stands as a testament to Freeland’s dedication to showcasing character depth over caricature and authentically representing diverse communities.

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Emily Johnson

Meet Emily Johnson, a rising star in the world of news reporting. Armed with a Communications degree from Harvard University, Emily's writing is a perfect blend of creativity and fact-based journalism. She specializes in human-interest stories, bringing the personal touch that makes every story relatable. Whether it's heartwarming tales or societal issues, Emily is your guide to the trending news you won't want to miss.

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