Wind River asks who has the right to portray American Indian identity?

Taylor Sheridan's directorial debut, Wind River is a crime drama set in an American Indian reservation
Taylor Sheridan’s directorial debut, Wind River is a crime drama set in an American Indian reservation

One of the most anticipated films of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival was Taylor Sheridan’s directorial debut, Wind River, which is essentially a fictional crime procedural story set in the real-life eponymous Indian reservation in Wyoming.

Sheridan, best known as a screenwriter of feature films including Sicario, understands cinematic movement, and the dramatically beautiful wintertime landscape — with its unforgiving temperatures — becomes an essential element of the tightly written plot.

Jeremy Renner plays a government fish & wildlife agent who is inadvertently pulled into a murder investigation when he comes upon the body of a teenage American Indian woman in the wilderness — far from where any human should be, especially one that’s barefoot.

Elizabeth Olsen becomes his de facto partner in crime solving, a rookie FBI agent from Las Vegas who is bright and capable but a fish out of water in the frozen climate.

After several plot turns and twists, the story ends — spoiler alert! — as a modern-day shootout at the OK Corral with white and red men at odds and Olsen’s and Renner’s characters caught in the middle.

During the audience Q&A following a Sundance screening, the director was asked why one of the two main characters wasn’t portrayed by an American Indian (given its setting)?

His answer was that as a white man, he didn’t feel he had the right to represent the Indian POV, never mind that he felt comfortable writing for Olsen’s distaff perspective, not to mention those of multiple American Indian supporting characters.

As for Olsen’s character, scrappy as she is, ultimately she falls into the traditional role of women in Westerns in which they always must be rescued by men folk.

Sheridan has made a suspenseful, beautifully produced whodunnit and cast it with an ensemble of actors that feel authentic.

Still, one has to wonder if the film might have been even better if he had taken the chance and made one of the main characters an American Indian.

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