Hierarchies of Hate and Healing? Thoughts on “Wind River” from Charlottesville

The following commentary is a Guest Post by Russ Miller, an expert on literature, film, and other things. Russ grew up in the West and currently lives in Virginia.

I live in Charlottesville.  That used to be something I said with no small measure of satisfaction.  It is a gem of a town, tucked into the folds of the genteel Blue Ridge Mountains and warmed by the rational light of the University of Virginia.  Thomas Jefferson, whose Monticello estate is located on the outskirts of town, presides over Charlottesville like a secular saint, setting a tone of enlightenment and “civic republicanism.”  Rich in culture and community, Charlottesville really is a magical place to call home.  It is sophisticated, but on a human scale.   Most American city governments do not have to trouble with maintaining a page at the municipal website entitled “Awards and Recognition.” The recent list of honors bestowed on Charlottesville is as humbling as it is inspiring:

But things have changed.  The rioting in August that left scores injured and one young woman dead now mean that other feelings and more painful impressions stir when I mention my home town.

The events of August 13, 2017, were triggered in part by the City Council’s decision to remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from a prominent park in the city’s historical old town.  The statue will be sold at auction and the park – formerly “Lee Park” – was rechristened “Emancipation Park.”

In the months after these dramatic Council votes, right-wing racist groups converged on Charlottesville, using the Lee statue (awaiting its fate while litigation proceeded) as a platform to express a grotesque mix of race-hatred, revisionist history, scapegoating, and violence.  Suddenly, the word “Charlottesville” has become a talisman for America’s entrenched racism, political dysfunction, and irresolvable division.  In the days after the riots, AlJazeera offered the mocking lament:  “Charlottesville is America everywhere.”

Taylor Sheridan’s well-reviewed new film Wind River quietly slipped into Charlottesville’s cinemas in the days before the riots.  Like Sheridan’s previous scripts, Wind River seeks to mix edge-of-your-seat action/drama with earnest commentary on America’s most desolate corners and hopeless populations.

In Wind River, Sheridan leaves behind the bankrupt dirt-farmers (Hell or Highwater (2016)) and drug dealers (Sicario (2015)) that populate the borderlands of his desperate, parched, and nearly lifeless Desert Southwest.  His new tragic topography is the bone-cracking cold of the impoverished Wind River Indian Reservation in the snow-swept mountain desert of central Wyoming where the latest in a string of murders of young Native American women sets the film’s plot.

The ensuing investigation brings together the wounded and benumbed game-tracker (Jeremy Renner) and the innocent and unsuspecting FBI agent (Elizabeth Olsen).  Sheridan wants them to stand-in for Americans’ posture towards the calamity that is devastating the Native American community generally and Native American women more specifically:  those who know something about it are mostly despairing; the rest of us simply have no idea.  When Olsen’s uninitiated agent arrives at the crime scene poorly navigating the snow-slicked roads and woefully under-dressed for a descending blizzard, Renner’s character ushers her into a new kind of nightmare on his growling snowmobile.

The film deserves its positive buzz.  It is well-paced and features a couple of near-perfect episodes of breathtaking cinematic tension.  Sheridan’s script is full of sermonizing but delivers some unforgettable lines that land like punches.  And Renner makes a fair bid for a Best Actor Oscar.  The muted, agonized, and vulnerable manhood that he and the Native American actor Gil Birmingham express in several scenes is hauntingly effective.  Above all, the film succeeds as a “blistering expose of violence against Native American women.”

It is this last feature that created the gnawing link between Wind River and Charlottesville for me.  I fear that the direction I am about to take is dangerous because it risks pitting the victims of unspeakable, historic crimes in an unwinnable contest for “America’s most abused.”  I am sensitive to this risk.  And I want to say as clearly as possible that I am not in the least interested in stirring up some kind of “race to the bottom of American injustice.”  But, upon seeing the film, I could not suppress the chilling realization that, just a few blocks from Charlottesville’s newly renamed Emancipation Park and the disputed statue of Robert E. Lee, another statue stands amidst the traffic at the busy intersection of Main and Ridge streets.  The bronze “Lewis & Clark and Sacagawea Statue” rises above Lewis & Clark Triangle, just a few yards from the front door of Charlottesville’s federal courthouse.

The statue is now referred to as the “Lewis & Clark and Sacagawea Statue” because modern sensibilities require us to acknowledge that it prominently features the entwined figures of all three of these protagonists from Lewis & Clark’s “journey of the corps of discovery.”  But the Charles Keck sculpture, commissioned by Paul McIntire, was unveiled in 1919 with the title “Their First View of the Pacific.”  It is fair to assume that the sculptor was not celebrating Sacagawea’s triumph.

McIntire also commissioned Charlottesville’s now-infamous Robert E. Lee statue.  But, where Lee serves as a painful symbol for America’s still-unresolved racist past, the Lewis & Clark and Sacagawea Statue unambiguously depicts and embodies the racist logic of the European genocide against the New World’s Native American occupants.  In the statue Sacagawea crouches, almost animal-like, at the feet of the eponymous Anglo-European conquerors.  Wind River’s poignancy derives from the oppression, and eventual decimation, of Native Americans that flowed inexorably from the westward impulse ignited in America’s breast by Lewis and Clark.  That oppression is anticipated and endorsed – in hardened bronze – in Charlottesville’s “other” statue.

There have been some critical murmurs aimed at the Lewis & Clark Statue over the years.  One result of the criticism was the erection, in 2009, of a small plague at the statue’s base that seeks to contextualize Sacajawea’s role in the Lewis & Clark expedition by acknowledging her “courage and bravery” and her service as “an ambassador, bridging relations among nations.”  This, the plague tells us, “earned her recognition in the chronicles of American History.”

But in the intense, still simmering debates over our civic statuary, the Charlottesville City Council did not seriously consider acting against this explicitly racist monument.  Why is that?

Among all the other confounding complexities that will bedevil our long-overdue reckoning with our dark past, the movie and the statue suggest that we also have to grapple with hierarchies of hate and healing in America.  Despite the current, strong appetite for victories of decency over symbols, some wounds will have to wait, even while some others have contemplated the connection between Native Americans and recent protests.

Glenn Kenny, reviewing Wind River for the NY Times, concluded that the “film’s ultimate statement” involves “an expanded awareness that the justice done by the good guys in this film is not nearly sufficient with respect to the larger injustice done to Native Americans.”  Add that to Charlottesville’s sins, too.

Photos courtesy of Russ Miller. Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    General John Sedgwick and His Last Words

    Major Gen. John Sedgwick

     

    On May 9, 1864, General John Sedgwick became the highest ranking United States soldier to be killed in the U.S. Civil War when a sharpshooter killed him at the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House. But despite Sedgwick’s leadership and his bravery, he is most known for his last words.

    “They Couldn’t Hit An Elephant”

    As his own men took cover while Confederate sharpshooters from 1000 yards away fired at the Union soldiers, Sedgwick stood tall.  Trying to inspire his men, he asked, “Why are you dodging like this? They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance.” A few moments later, he was shot in the eye and killed.

    Sedgwick had been involved in the Civil War from its very beginning, starting out as a colonel. He and his men saw action in places such as the Battle of Antietam, the Battle of Chancellorsville, and at the Battle of the Wilderness.

    Sedgwick’s death came a little less than a year before the Confederacy surrendered at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1965.  Also, he died exactly one year before the official end of the war by proclamation on May 9, 1865.

    Despite dying while questioning his soldiers, Sedgwick apparently was well-liked by his men, who called him “Uncle John.” Ulysses S. Grant and Gen. George G. Meade were greatly saddened at his death, as was his old friend on the other side of the war, Robert E. Lee.

    “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door”

    There are a number of songs about guns and/or being shot, either literally or figuratively. For example, there is Aerosmith’s “Janie’s Got a Gun,” Bon Jovi’s “You Give Love a Bad Name” (“shot through the heart. . .”), Eric Clapton’s “I Shot the Sheriff,” the Beatles’ “Happiness is a Warm Gun,” and Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Saturday Night Special.”

    Other songs include The Clash’s “Tommy Gun,” Warren Zevon’s “Lawyers, Guns and Money,” Jimi Hendrix’s “Machine Gun,” Beastie Boys’s “Looking Down the Barrel of a Gun,” and Cypress Hill’s “How I Could Just Kill a Man.” And there is David Lee Roth’s song that invokes the type of animal in Sedgwick’s last words, “Elephant Gun.”

    One of the few songs, though, that takes the point of view of the person being shot is Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” Dylan wrote the song for the 1973 movie Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.

    In Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, director Sam Peckinpah used the song about the last words of a wounded sheriff to accompany the death of Sheriff Colin Baker (played by Slim Pickens). Dylan’s song begins around the 2-minute mark in the following clip from the film.

    Unlike the sheriff in “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” General Sedgwick had little time to contemplate the end of his life after he was shot in the head. Yet, his last words have had a lasting power.

    Storytellers used Sedgwick’s last words for a number of purposes.  Depending on how you look at his death, his last words illustrate courage, bravura, or stupidity.

    You have to give some kudos to the guy, though, and many have. There is a monument to Sedgwick at West Point. And among other tributes, there are cities named in Sedgwick’s memory in Arkansas, Colorado, and Kansas.  Colorado and Kansas also named counties after Sedgwick. Streets are named after him in New York City, Chicago, and Washington, D.C.

    Meanwhile, nobody remembers the name of the man who killed him. Several Confederate soldiers claimed responsibility, though many believe Benjamin Medicus Powell fired the fatal shot using a long-range Whitworth sharpshooter rifle (with telescope) from England.

    What are your favorite last words? Leave your two cents in the comments. Photo via public domain.

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    Nixon, Robert E. Lee, and Susanne Sundfør Resign

    On August 8 at 9:01 p.m. in 1974, Pres. Richard M. Nixon went on television to announce he was resigning. Although many had seen it coming, it was still a shocking moment in American history.

    As impeachment proceedings were beginning from the Watergate investigation and Nixon’s involvement in the cover-up, Nixon realized that the end was near. He stated that a long drawn-out fight would harm the country, so, “Therefore, I shall resign the Presidency effective at noon tomorrow. Vice President Ford will be sworn in as President at that hour in this office.”

    Another Historic Offer of Resignation

    More than a century earlier in 1863 also on August 8, Gen. Robert E. Lee offered his resignation as Commander of the Army of Northern Virginia to Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Although he ultimately did not resign, his offer signaled Southern concerns about the state of the war.

    More than a month before Lee’s offer, Lee’s army had suffered 23,000 casualties at Gettysburg.  And the Union Army was once again in Virginia. Lee was physically exhausted and questioned his ability to lead the army to victory.

    But Jefferson Davis refused Lee’s resignation offer.  He realized that it was impossible to find someone more fit than Lee to lead the army.

    Susanne Sundfør’s Song “I Resign”

    Lee and Nixon both made big mistakes, but in the song “I Resign” from the album Take One (2008), Norwegian singer-songwriter Susanne Sundfør reminds us that sometimes there is relief in resignation. In the song, she sings: “I have found peace / Where it’s impossible to rest.”

    Nixon was embarrassed and hated to give up the power of the presidency.  But he also must have felt a little relief to have that responsibility removed from his shoulders.

    By contrast, Lee must have taken Davis’s refusal as validating his worth to continue the fighting.  Yet, he also he may have felt some disappointment that the burden of men’s lives and the the war’s outcome remained on his shoulders.

    Although Sundfør is not a household name in the U.S., she has won awards in Norway and won a talent grant for aspiring musicians from the Norwegian music icons a-ha. The reviews on her website are in Norwegian, so I do not really know what other people are saying about her music. But from the music, I think we may be hearing more from Susanne Sundfør.  Here is her song, “I Resign.”

    Photo above via.

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