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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