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My Problems with Wind River: Part. II — Race

Wind River is an intriguing film as in many respects it represents a well-intended effort to bring intersectional topics of racial and sexual violence into a genre that is typically geared towards white male audiences, and traditionally deaf to such issues. However, like many Hollywood films dealing with such issues, it ultimately does both Native and female viewers a disservice, failing to rise to the demands of producing an effectively Native-accented discourse. The film is a procedural thriller, structuring itself from a standpoint of sympathy with Native Americans. The film follows Corey Lambert (Jeremy Renner), a white professional hunter who agrees to assist FBI Agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) in her investigation into the death of Natalie Hanson (Kelsey Chow) a Native American woman, with the covert goal of exacting revenge on her killers on behalf of Natalie’s father Martin (Gil Birmingham).

In part one of this two part series I outlined the reasons I felt Wind River had failed viewers in its attempts to restructure masculinity and give a voice to those affected by sexual violence. This second part will address the similar ways the film does viewers a disservice in its representations of racial and postcolonial issues.

In respect to the ideas of race and representation, my interest in the film is less in how it pertains to ‘realistic’ or ‘positive’ portrayals of Native Americans, and more in how the film structures its narrative to keep the viewer sutured into a white male perspective, a perspective it reinforces rather than challenges. Critical race theory has a tendency to fall back on arguments of ‘realism’ either to critique inaccurate stereotypes or to excuse harmful stereotypes by reason of their frequent accuracy. The privileging and celebration of ‘positive’ and ‘realistic’ portraits both pose problems in practical terms.

For one, notions of ‘realism’ are not clearly defined. ‘Realism’ is a goal, that of capturing ‘reality’, but also an aesthetic style, and despite being defined as a portrayal of reality removed from concerns of ideological alignment, such alignment is inevitable, as the filmmaker exercises a choice in what to show and how. The style of realism exists because the filmmaker feels that there is something that non-realistic styles overlook, and realism was created with an intent of showing that overlooked aspect of reality. Reality is, to art, a flexible resource, there is no single reality that can be directly accessed and represented. Reality is always distorted by perception, prejudice and language, even the cinematic language.

When the ‘real’ is concerned, we have only anecdotal individual experience of a culture and cultural representations mediated by other concerns such as narrative, genre, ideology and marketability. Modern art represents reality less in a mimetic sense, and more in a political one. This is reality as the artist perceives it. In the context of art and entertainment, the ‘real’ is represented instead in the form of verisimilitude: a plausible approximation of the ‘real’, and different artworks and entertainments will privilege this plausibility against expressionism on a gradient, with different genres and desired end goals having different tolerances for suspension of disbelief.

Some meanings are generally more effectively conveyed in more plausible scenarios, as in social-realist film, while lighter entertainment pays less mind to ‘the real’, in favour of the pleasurable fantasy, and the purpose of nearly all modern or post-classical artworks is the expression of meaning, either emotional or intellectual, and not merely mimesis. So less pertinent to reading of racial and ethnic representation is how the portrayal measures against any ideologically constructed notion of the reality of the ethnic group, than how the underlying ideology of the representation measures against the ideology supporting that notion of reality.

Rather than, ‘what does this film believe to be true about this ethnic group?’, we should instead ask, ‘how does the film seem to feel about the group?’, and further; ‘what is it assuming about who its audience is, and how they will feel about the group being represented?’

However, we should be equally wary of exclusively privileging ‘positive images’ over truth and variation. Ideas of ‘positive’ representation are troublesome, both in that ideas of what counts as a ‘positive’ character portrait are even more relative than ideas of what constitutes a ‘realistic’ one, and that positive and realistic portraits do not necessarily overlap. Overwhelmingly and uniformly positive portrayals are likely to manifest as insincere and romanticised portraits that do more to reassure dominant ideologies than they do to flatter the marginalised cultures they seek to represent, who do not see themselves in a similarly idealised or fetishised manner.

Any accurate portrayal of a culture should be tinged with ambivalence and variation, and over-reliance on either ‘positive’ or ‘realistic’ images risks leading to the creation of new sets of stereotypes. The flaw with such forms of reliance is that they fail to account for the heterogeneity and variety of individual personality within any demographic. Any social grouping will contain, outside of whatever characteristic or experiential overlap by which they are grouped, a manifold of various characteristics. This is why, the focus on generation of images, in which every minority character is seen as either a demon or a role model, should be avoided.

This is not to say that representation theory is led astray by such analyses, by definition. However it is important that each film and each image, be understood on its own terms, according to its own intentions and that image-based analyses not be privileged over other equally rewarding forms of understanding films.

Tempering such rigorous ‘character portrait’ analysis, I would advocate for a form of analysis that seeks to find the ideological foundations upon which the film is built, that being, ‘spectator positioning’, or suture, the perspective on events the film adopts and forces the viewer into. Simply because of where the camera has been placed, who is in the scene, how long we spend with each character and how much focus their thoughts, feelings and goals are given within the narrative, the viewer is sutured into identification with a particular perspective.

The medium of cinema is highly effective at presenting a particular viewpoint on a scene, with particular codes in the language that force the viewer to read along in a particular way and empathise with a particular perspective, aligning themselves to particular characters and understanding particular outcomes to be desirable. Which, to take the example of the Western, is the defeat of the Indian aggressors and the protection of the white settlers. The fact that, in reality, the white settlers more accurately fitted the role of the aggressors, would be both an equal oversimplification, and counter to the intentions of the ideology behind many Hollywood films, and the Western genre in particular, that of reassuring European viewers and encouraging pride in colonial achievements.

The concept of representation as explanation certainly has merit, as the way people grow to conceive of a demographic group is largely informed by how that group is portrayed by media and the context they are put in as a result, however this is less relevant to Wind River as its failings generally have little to do with realism.

My analysis of Wind River is therefore focused on a) delineating its position as antithetical to serious post-colonial discourse, outlining where the opportunities for engagement with debates over the position of Native Americans in US society are presented and ignored and b) outlining the ways in which it presents a regressive and reductive portrait of the few debates with which it does engage.

Although mainstream reception of Wind River was broadly positive, Native American authors were more ambivalent about the film. In an article entitled ‘Why do white writers keep making films about Indian Country?’ commentator Jason Asenap, praised the film in many respects and stated that:

From the standpoint of content and politics, Sheridan [the writer-director of Wind River] is on the right side. His interest in writing and directing a film about the problem of missing Native women is admirable, and he is putting his platform as a heavy-hitter in Hollywood to good use.

But Asenap goes on to criticise the film for playing into pernicious modern stereotypes of Native Americans, stating that ‘while it’s great to see Native people portrayed with some depth, they are, for the most part, incredibly sad and, in the case of some, dead,’ he continues, ‘at least in Hollywood, the Indians die. To this day, the Indians die, and not just physically, but culturally’. In an interview with IQ Magazine, the Native American artist Gregg Deal cited the belief that Native peoples are dying as the number one misconception about Natives peoples in America.

Asenap concludes his discussion of the film more sourly, stating that ‘Sheridan [is] invested in making us see how America has screwed Native people, but to the point of rubbing it in our faces’. The sympathy exhibited by the film runs perilously close to simply becoming pity, and such overly tragic portrayals, to ultimately robbing the films Native American characters of dignity, and laying the groundwork for the loss of agency seen in Wind River.

Portraying Native Americans as so uniformly sad provides an excuse for white peoples, and the character of Cory Lambert in specific, to impose their paternalistic authority. Asenap ultimately asks ‘does a positive message redeem poor narrative? Does giving a good cause free you from obligations to the culture you are telling stories about?’ The implicit answer to both these questions is ‘no’. Narrative is often equal to, or essential to constructing, message, and Sheridan’s presentation of his ‘good cause’ is a shallow one.

For one, the race of the victim is not explicitly a factor in the assault that sparks the narrative. The victim’s rapists never comment on her race at any point in the film. Kelsey Chow, the actor chosen to portray the victim was not Native American, and was actually of Chinese-American descent and therefore appears closer to Caucasian than other Native American characters in the film, who were played by actors of officially Native American origin.

Chinese American actor Kelsey Chow as Native American Natalie Hanson

By 2017, such racially mismatched castings had long been points of contention. The most commonly held argument against the employment of non-Native American actors in such roles is that it is depriving true Native American actors of high-profile exposure and employment. However, in regard to the meaning taken from the film, more insidious are the unsettling ideological implications behind this particular case of casting.

It is demanded of the audience that they should feel paternalistically protective towards the character of Natalie—the film draws heavy comparisons between Natalie and Cory’s own mixed race daughter Emily, who died in a similar fashion some years earlier—and so the unsettling implication of the decision to cast a non-Native American actor in the role is that white audiences would potentially find it easier to feel protective towards a mixed-race Chinese-American woman than to a Native American one. This also opens the door to separate debates around the kinds of roles Asian women are often cast in by Hollywood films.

As stated, in the scenario portrayed, her race is not made explicitly relevant to why the men assaulted her, why they expected to get away with it, nor to why her case was not given the proper attention by the authorities. Her death is not treated as a homicide owing to a technicality that she died of natural causes as she fled her attackers, not through apathy on the part of the investigators.

Despite attempts in the film’s metalanguage to tie events into systemic injustices, ending with onscreen text raising the issue that missing persons records are not properly kept for Native American women, the keeping of such records has no bearing on the progress of the narrative and has no relevance to why the legal authorities were not able to bring the criminals to justice, and why the film instead relies on the proverbial ‘good (white) guy with a gun’. As a result, it appears as if the film is little interested in changing the federal system and is perhaps a little too eager to reject it in favour of the rugged white individualism typified by Lambert.

Although Wind River is set on the titular reservation, it largely ignores the historical and oppressive context behind reservations. It does, via the use of the security team of rapists, invoke the iconography of ‘fencing in’ and of abusive authority. This abusive authority is transferred from the US government onto the gangster capitalist authority of the heavily armed oil company employees who rape Natalie, a change which does have some political merit.

Federal authorities are portrayed, through the character of Agent Jane Banner, as sympathetic towards, and willing but physically ill-equipped to assist, Native Americans. She is unable to pursue the case as a homicide based on a technicality, not a systemic (or personal, which could have stood in for a systemic), disinclination to value the lives of Native American women.

According to the metalanguage of Wind River, the feminine US Government should leave the role of sheparding the Native Americans to the sole white man, Lambert, metaphorically protecting his flock, as his role as a professional hunter of dangerous animals attacking local livestock suggests: he is following the trail of Cattle, killed by a mountain lion, and finds the body of Natalie, examines the body, and follows the trail to her slayer. The film’s totemic character for authority and correctness is a white male and not a Native American woman, on whose behalf it presumes to be speaking on issues of sexual violence perpetrated against Native women.

The film effectively silences the demographics it would have us believe that it is speaking for. As a result, the film shows a failure to internalise the issues on which it is speaking, and fails to articulate them with either its narrative or its gaze. The film is so rigorously sutured into the perspective and tropes of exceptionalist white male heroism that it unreflectively recreates romanticised colonialist myths of manifest destiny and cycles of placating white male egoism.

It is never possible for a film to make comment on race without, even if only by exclusion, commenting on sex, gender, sexuality or class. This is the crux of intersectionality, the concept laid out by Kimberlé Crenshaw, that should be borne in mind in any exploration of representation. Crenshaw put forth the concept as a result of studying the work of the Combahee River Collective, a group of queer black women activists who formed in response to racism in the feminist and queer movements, misogyny in the black and queer movements and homophobia in the black and feminist movements of the era.

Intersectionality encourages an appreciation of the cross-demographic forms bigotry takes. Where one finds, in a film, one form of paternalism, others are often close by, with such attitudes most commonly expressive of generalised core beliefs in which all social groups fall short of the uniquely privileged perspective of European males, who are the dominant influencers and generators of Western culture.

Wind River exhibits markers of eurocentrism in its attempts to tackle the issue of sexual violence against Native Americans, glorifying the authority of a white man to resolve the crisis through violence. Rather than empowering the disempowered, power and the potential for action remains firmly in the hands of European characters. Native American characters are privileged with wisdom and authority, but remain passive in their actions. Desirable polycentric (or pancentric) multiculturalism is defined according to 5 separate features, as a school of thought or practice that is: a) devoted to empowering the disempowered, b) is sympathetic towards the under-represented, and actively critical of Eurocentric systems, c) is celebratory and not merely tolerant of other cultures, d) rejects notions of identity politics and e) sees social exchange along the lines of a malleable dialogue between the cultures.

In respect to these criteria, we could suggest that Wind River, is at best unclear, and often contradictory. The film does indeed reject identity politics and sees the potential for dialogue between European and American cultures, viewing culture and identity as at least somewhat fluid, at least on a level of individual characters. Lambert does indeed successfully co-opt and understand Native cultural practices and attitudes. However, as we might go on to argue, despite its intentions, the film itself does not embrace a Native-accented language of cinema and even on a character level; Lambert advises the white Banner that she is not preternaturally suited to the harshness of life on Indian land. Implying that her whiteness is not a barrier to her acclimatisation to life on the reservation, but her white femininity is.

Further, it is hard to argue that it is celebratory rather than tolerant of Native American culture. Little actual Native American cultural practice is expressed within the film, with only two significant moments of cultural expression in the film. The first is when Natalie’s mother Annie (Althea Sam) is shown cutting herself, a form of grieving practice among some Lakota Sioux Tribes, although the authenticity of this supposed practice has been challenged by some. This practice is intended to be performed under supervision from an elder, however in Wind River she is seen performing it privately, and it is treated as a private moment into which Jane Banner, the FBI agent investigating the case, has callously intruded. The second in where, in the final scene, Martin Hanson has painted his face, in preparation for committing suicide, an act Cory talks him out of.

Elizabeth Olsen and Graham Greene in Wind River

Both of these expressions of Native American identity are self-destructive and isolating grief acts, which adds credence to Asenap’s claim that Wind River presents Native Americans as a ‘dying race’.

These two moments are treated somewhat respectfully, but are not celebratory either, given their nature as self-destructive acts, and context as expressions of grief. The question of sympathy towards Native American systems is also less than clear. The film is certainly sympathetic towards Native Americans. However, its primary object of veneration is the white male who understands Native American practices. His experiences are still privileged over those of Native Americans, even if they are against other whites. He exhibits the best of both worlds, with the wisdom and sensitivity the film associates with Native Americans and the strength and potency of Europeans.

The film could have very effectively challenged Eurocentric discourse, but for the fact they chose to make the main character a white man, and not himself a member of the underprivileged ethnic community to whose issues the film wishes to draw our attention. Consequently, the most marked failing of Wind River, as far as delivering a pancentric multicultural presentation is in the first criterion of ‘empowering the disempowered’. The power in Wind River’s narrative remains firmly that of an individualistic white male, the same kind Hollywood narrative, and the Western genre in particular, has venerated since its inception.

For purposes of comparison, we might look to Ivan Sen’s 2013 film Mystery Road, an Australian film, directed by a mixed-race Aboriginal man, starring a mixed-race aboriginal protagonist, which, very like Wind River, is structured around the police investigation of the rape and murder of a young aboriginal woman. However, the films differ in key ways suggestive of differing starting perspectives.

The comparative tones of the films are very different, and the Australian aboriginal film is much more ambivalent about the violent acts which conclude the drama, downplaying their thrilling qualities with no dramatic music or fast cutting. Significantly, Mystery Road also acknowledges the racial element to the violence perpetrated throughout the film and Australia’s history of racial oppression and frequently draws attention to mundane acts of racism perpetrated against aboriginal people.

The opening scene of Mystery Road, in which the victim’s body is discovered, begins at dawn; a truck driver steps down from his rig, and in the low light, casts his torchlight across a road sign, reading: “MASSACRE CREEK”. A short distance further down the road, he discovers the concealed body of an aboriginal woman, murdered by white Australians. It is by means of such potent imagery that Mystery Road inextricably ties the landscape to historical atrocities committed by colonial rule and their ongoing legacy of violence.

Aaron Pedersen as Detective Jay Swan in Mystery Road

Once the film’s protagonist Jay Swan (Aaron Pedersen), a mixed-race Detective, arrives, the film begins to effectively critique apathetic responses to crimes committed against aborigines. Jay’s white deputy fails to lock down the crime scene or keep press at a respectful distance and shows little regard for either Jay’s authority or the seriousness of the case. Jay is not provided assistance with the case by his superiors or his corrupt white colleagues, and when questioning witnesses, his authority is undermined by reason of his race, with one witness tellingly enquiring: “are you a real copper? Or one of them black trackers that turns on their own tribe?”

In the eyes of many characters, by allying himself with the authorities perpetrating injustice against aborigines, and whose corruption he ultimately uncovers, Jay is implicitly betraying his own race. By such means, Mystery Road constructs a narrative that is quietly, yet overtly, critical of Eurocentric perspectives, offering an alternative, more aboriginal one, while still employing many familiar Western tropes.

There are respects in which the sympathies of Wind River do offer more hope of a polycentric multicultural discourse, Native American characters are offered instances of personal depth and aligned gaze. However such moments are problematised in other ways. We are aligned with Native American characters at some points in the narrative, however only ever in coalition against the white female character Jane Banner, who embodies both a naively ignorant and ineffective government and white urban femininity, and is treated with an even greater degree of paternalistic condescension by the rugged white frontiersman Lambert.

It would not be accurate to argue that Wind River ought merely to have made itself about Martin and all the problems with it would have gone away. For one, we would still have had its troublingly misogynistic undertones to deal with. If the character of Martin, as a Native American, did all the same things that Cory does, then the film would remain an authoritarian piece, advocating gendered paranoia, vigilante violence, stoicism and rugged individualism, rejecting collective institutions as weak and fragile and offering no argument in favour of, or potential for, reform, growth or change.

Again, to make comparison to Mystery Road, the aborigine protagonist Jay Swan is much more conflicted, flawed and vulnerable than Cory Lambert. While Lambert participates in the final shootout of Wind River from a concealed sniping position of seemingly omnipotent security, Jay is exposed and pinned down, he is the one subject to gunfire from a concealed sniper. When given the murder case, he objects that he has never handled a case of this gravity before and unlike the unified self-assurance of Lambert, his identity is split, regarded as an outsider by all.

If Martin was the point of view character, in an identical story, where Cory still took revenge on his behalf, then the narrative being told would still privilege a paternalistic white vision of the world in which a white character shepherds a Native American through his grief and would not automatically constitute an effective critique of such a narrative. In order to create a post-colonialist discourse through the film Wind River, it would require a full tear-down of almost every narrative and perspectival element, and would in all likelihood still result in a deeply misogynistic film.

The principles of counter-cultural cinema posit that in order to create a discourse that truly redresses the dominant ideology of cinema, then the codes and language of ‘invisible’ Hollywood cinema need be redrawn. The suturing of the viewer into alignment with any character in a narrative, blinds the viewer to an objective, and therefore resistant, reading of the narrative. It is possible that the story of Wind River might have been retold as is, but with careful mediation by usage of Brechtian alienation techniques, the viewer’s attention could have been drawn to the pernicious paternalism of the narrative to create a deliberately resistant reading.

However, such a technique has no lasting appeal in the mainstream. Once the dominant ideology in cinema is sufficiently unsettled, the power of critiquing it covertly is lessened. There is only so long that one can remain on the outside looking in. More importantly, the average cinema-goer would not be having the ‘invisible’ experience of immersion that serves the primary use of cinema as an entertainment. By abjuring the conventions of cinema, the avant-gardist forfeits their voice as a cultural influencer to all viewers but those who are already critically minded and receptive to fringe filmmaking.

A resistant Native American cinema certainly has its place, however, the function of Wind River was to appeal to mainstream audiences as an entertainment, as a thriller. Usage of unfamiliar cinematic devices, such as a lack of character alignment, would, to a European-American mainstream audience, detract from the ‘thrilling’ qualities of the picture. Even in the case of Mystery Road, in director Ivan Sen’s generation of his critical, aboriginal perspective, much of the story’s potential dynamism and sense of pacing is lost.

What would be required is a form of accented cinema, in which members of Native communities make films using their ‘own versions’ of Hollywood style, and might fare better in generating a progressive rival to paternalistic films such as Wind River. However, it should be noted that ‘accented cinema’ is defined as a ‘style’, rather than origin. There is an implicit criterion of ‘realness’ in the nomenclature ‘accented’ that would demand that the accented stylistic choices originate in the exilic and diasporic identity of the filmmaker, but in terms of use by audiences, it is not directly relevant that the filmmaker themselves be of Native origin.

Native filmmakers deserve a platform, but it is not an excuse for paternalistic film-making, that the filmmaker be a white male. Such an assumption paradoxically both judges white males too harshly, and lets them off the hook. Wind River fails to provide Native audiences a voice, but it is through specific decisions made in the writing and filming that the film’s paternalistic ideology is expressed, and these choices could have been avoided by the film’s white director as readily as by a Native filmmaker, who would, one assumes, never have considered them.

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Written by Hal Kitchen

A reviewer of music and films, I am a graduate of the University of Kent Canterbury where I have a 1st class BA in Liberal Arts and will soon have an MA in Film, specializing in film and gender theory. Whilst at Kent I was the Film & TV sub-editor and later Culture Editor of the campus newspaper InQuire and run a Letterboxd account. I joined 25YearsLaterSite as a volunteer writer in May 2020.

2 Comments

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  1. Hi, Hal:

    I think you make a persuasive case for WIND RIVER as a well-intentioned film that falls short in precisely the ways you articulate. I still think it’s a film worth viewing and probably worth more than one viewing, if for no other reason than to dig more deeply into the very issues you cite as being undeserved, distorted, or coopted. Especially given how little screen time Native Americans and their culture are allotted (in any manner, let alone as central focus), I do think that Taylor Sheridan merits some appreciation for attempting a small corrective to that, even if it does fall short, and for showing evidence of some genuine cinematic craft. . . . By the way, for anyone interested in reading about an indigenous culture viewed from within that culture, try Kawai Strong Washburn’s new novel, SHARKS IN THE TIME OF SAVIORS (Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2020), a powerful family saga that illuminates the constant struggle between Native identity (and myth) and the obliterating forces of assimilation.

  2. I subsequently, as per your recommendation, watched MYSTERY ROAD and found it a very solid if stripped down police procedural featuring a terrific performance by Aaron Pedersonan as the indigenous detective-protagonist. I still find WIND RIVER more cinematically compelling but can readily see how MYSTSERY ROAD largely avoids exploitation while highlighting the indigenous point of view. Interesting coincidence: actor Pederson is featured in an article that appeared in today’s (Oct. 13) New York Times, which covers his career including the MR and GOLDSTONE, as well as the MR TV series. His relationship with his palsy-afflicted brother is especially moving.

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