Culture Club

We just got back from visiting the kids, so I had a work-week on a plane, 40+ hours between the round-trip. When you have that much time on a plane, you can sleep, you can read, or you can watch movies. You can — I can’t sleep on planes, so that leaves the last two. I’ve found that a plane isn’t very conducive to reading, either; between the uncomfortable seats, the screaming babies and/or their parents, various meals, snacks, waters, etc., and sheer fatigue after ten hours or so, the brain just doesn’t want to process those words.

That leaves movies. Fortunately, we live in a wonderful age where every seat on an international flight has a screen, and there usually forty or more on-demand movies to choose from. I watched a total of twelve in the round trip, and some day soon we’ll talk about all of them. But today, we’re just going to talk about one, and only a small scene in that one.

Wind River somehow passed under my movie radar. Although I don’t see a lot of new movies these days (too many hollow tentpoles and indies that think the definition of “indie” is “more f-bombs”), I do keep up with what’s released, read reviews, and thus generally know something about a movie, even if I haven’t seen it. But when I saw Wind River on the menu, I had nothing.

A quick visit to IMDB later (the first thing you do when you get on the plane in the US is check IMDB for any movies you need information on, while you still have cell service) and I was intrigued enough to put it on the “to watch” list. Although it was R-rated, the flight was showing an airplane-only PG-13 version (that’s almost always true on US airlines, but less so on international ones).1

The plot involves the murder of an 18-year old woman on a Native American reservation in Wyoming. Jeremy Renner plays Cole, the Fish and Wildlife tracker who initially finds the body and ends up helping in the investigation, and Elizabeth Olsen plays Jane, the wet-behind-the-ears FBI agent who’s sent to work the case because she happens to be closest to the reservation when the call comes in.

The scene we’re going to visit is one toward the beginning of the movie, where Jane and the reservation police visit the woman’s parents’ home, where she lived. Jane begins to question Martin, the father, and the conversation quickly goes downhill. Jane asks where his daughter had been the night before she died; he doesn’t know. She asks about her boyfriend; Martin doesn’t know his name, where he lives, etc. Jane questions his allowing his daughter to go out to places unknown with persons unknown. “I trusted her, she was an adult,” says Martin. “Barely!”, replies Jane.

After a couple more exchanges, with everyone’s agitation level pretty high, Jane stops and says, “Look, I’m just trying to help. I want to find out who did this.” Martin comes back with the line of the movie.

Why is it that whenever you people try to help us, you always insult us first?

About that time there’s a knock at the door. Martin goes to answer it; it’s Cole. With the camera on Martin, we watch as his face turns from anger to confusion to sorrow to anguish until finally he falls sobbing into Cole’s arms. Cole hasn’t said a word. It’s a masterful job by Gil Birmingham, the actor playing Martin whose career thankfully survived appearing in the Twilight series.

Why did Martin react so differently to Jane and Cole? It wasn’t race-related — they’re both white. It wasn’t gender-related; his issue with Jane wasn’t that she was a woman. It wasn’t age-related; Jane is younger than Cole, but not that much younger.

Jane was an outsider who knew nothing about the culture she had been thrust into and came in assuming the values and viewpoints she had were the “right” ones. (As just one example, she considered an 18-year old a girl instead of a woman.) She had a job to do and nothing, and no one, was going to get in the way. She was well-intentioned, but had no situational awareness (this will be seen again later in the movie, with graver consequences) — the man she was interviewing had just lost his daughter, but that doesn’t seem to have occurred to her.

Cole was an insider. He had lived on (near?) the reservation for many years; we soon learn that he had known Martin’s daughter since she was born. He understood the culture in which he lived, he thought before he spoke (which wasn’t often), and he was a good friend.

Sitting on a plane to Cambodia and a culture that would be hard-pressed to be more unlike my own if it tried, I thought about this scene more than the average person would. In a dozen years of short-term mission trips, I’ve learned that we all think we’re Cole, but almost all of us are Jane. I’ve also learned that the more we (I) go, the more we (I) think we (I) look like Cole, and the more we still look like Jane.

Culture is hard. We assume that what we grew up with is the way things are supposed to work, that what we’re used to is “right.” We have a hard time distinguishing between “different” and “wrong”. We don’t know why anyone would want to eat (fill in the blank). Of course, you don’t have to travel internationally to discover any of this; you learn the same thing the second day after you get back from your honeymoon.

The last few days have brought this subject to the forefront. (I’ve had this post rattling2 around in my head for a month, long before the narcissist-in-chief made his comments.) There are still many who look down on others’ cultures because they view them as lower or worse or @&*^-holey. Most of the time they have no first-hand experience with those cultures. Worse are those that do, and come away with a reinforced opinion of their own supposed superiority instead of greater understanding of the other.

As we begin a new year, let’s all strive to be more like Cole. Let’s listen more to those outside our culture — our political culture, our sports culture, our work culture, our religious culture, our everything culture. Let’s seek to understand them before we refute them. (We may end up still not agreeing with them, but let’s at least understand what we’re not agreeing with.)

And let’s be well-acting instead of well-intentioned.

  1. Note: talking about a movie isn’t the same as recommending it. I would never have watched this movie in its theatrical release, and I wouldn’t suggest you do so, either. There’s plenty of R-rated language and way too much of a rape scene, both of which were excised from the airline version.
  2. It gets worse the more marbles go missing.

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