“Cutting Horse” And The Need for More Black Westerns

"Cutting Horse" And The Need for More Black Westerns

Black cowboys aren’t often portrayed in American film, even though they played an integral role in the development of the Western frontier. This is one of the reasons I decided to see Larry Clark’s Cutting Horse (2002) on Sunday night, screened as part of the UCLA L.A. Rebellion Film Series at the Hammer Museum. Described as a “revisionist” version of the classic western, it centers on a family of black and Latino cowboys who train horses to instinctively keep certain cows from returning to the herd, also known as “cutting horses.” Their land suddenly faces environmental threats and a foreclosure by neighboring chemical company clan, the Stones. Tyler, played by actual horse trainer Albert Harris, returns to the Livermore Ranch in the midst of an ensuing family war involving a past sexual assault on his former lover Rosa, and a family battle over a horse named Dark Knight. Silent and expressionless throughout most of the film, Tyler works to train the horse, who embodies the family’s sole chance at economic and financial survival.

Weakened by trite plot developments and dialogue, Cutting Horse doesn't so much revise the Western as it recycles and perpetuates familiar tropes, many times at the expense of cinematic plausibility. I'm not an avid viewer of Westerns, so at points I questioned whether my concerns actually had more to do with the genre, or the film itself. But any film within a genre needs convincing performances, and this one lacked in that regard as well. Perhaps one of the major character mismatches was pairing Rosa, a youthful, though one-note character, with Ray, a disgruntled, old man played by an over-acting Robert Earl Crudup. A kiss between them was so devoid of chemistry and believability that I was left feeling uneasy, but also a bit humored.

What Cutting Horse did provide, however, was an alternative way to frame black bodies in space. In wide, open hills, dry heat, long grass, and ranches. In black hats, boots, snug jeans, and denim shirts. In this world, black people cut and train horses, have arguments about whether they should enter their prized Dark Knight into the top competition. Here also is a world where worth is equated with the performance of one’s horse, and their ability to cut cattle. The close shots of the horse’s legs dipping between the cattle was dizzying but also fascinating in its rhythm and coordination. Before this film, I’d known nothing about cutting horses and black people’s particular role in this financially viable sport.  Even as it suffers from script deficiencies, the film is an amazing visual document of black existences that remain outside of contemporary cinematic lenses.

That there is a thriving black cowboy culture in Oakland, and in neighboring Livermore, is a fact that would astound many. As a bay area native, I’m even moved to learn more about this subculture. Clark’s inspiration for the film stemmed partly from a visit he made to a rodeo in Richmond, California, that faced a Chevron chemical plant. The idea was rich with possibility and nuance. Having seen two of Clark’s earlier films, Passing Through and As Above, So Below, I wondered how this particular work was conceived.  It’s not only different in genre, it’s also strangely safe in its structure, cinematography, and subtext. It’s an interesting shift, but after seeing the masterful aesthetics of As Above, So Below on Saturday (see previous review), I wanted to know what signaled it.

Story aside, Clark’s film made me want more of these kinds of narratives. Narratives that re-envision black characters and their existence in different geographical spaces. There are so many films that equate black experience to the urban locale that we’ve in some ways started to expect it. This film liberates the viewer from this notion and in doing so illuminates so many stories that have yet to be told. Black cowboys. Black surfers. Black skiers. These are also ourstories. Let’s tell them.

The "L.A. Rebellion: Creating A New Black Cinema" Screening series runs until December 17, 2011 at the UCLA Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, California. For more information, visit http://www.cinema.ucla.edu/la-rebellion.

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How about black cowgirls?


I agree with the need for more Black westerns as it is a part of our history and where Cow-"Boys" got there name in the first place. Black Cowboys are just as much a factor in western settlement as any other people and the story should be told more often. My good friend and great actor, Reginald T. Dorsey is developing a western now and I pray that it gets made with all the passion, pride and energy that I know he will put into it. Hopefully others will take the challenge and bring us more films like Larry Clark's "Cutting Horse"

H Tubman

It would have to be done reeeeally well. I'm no fan of the Western genre. I can only think of 2 that I did love; Posse and True Grit (the remake), which did an excellent job keeping my attention. Surfer films? I still haven't seen Blue Crush or the one with the surfer who got her arm eaten by the shark…nope, not interested. I guess the backstory is going to be the vital component, because too many blacks are split on those subjects to make a fairly good profit on it.


Good post…well written…nice read…and a great thought……> (Black cowboys. Black surfers. Black skiers. These are also our stories. Let’s tell them). As I was reading this article I was reminded of the Black Olympic speed skating medal winner. I am sure there is a back story to his success and the obstacles he faced along the way. But you know what, I hope whomever decides to tell one of our silent stories, does not do so in the woe is me…we shall/have overcome vain. You know the ones…the black protagonist who is born in the hood to a single alcoholic mother, who abandoned him or her at the age of 8, yet after years of foster homes and youth detention centers, the young person went on to become a NBA ALLSTAR. Nope, I've seen that story. But check this, I have a story but unfortunately – yet fortunately – it's a slave story. Okay, don't run b/c it's a true story. My great-great-great grandfather was a slave from Northeast Kentucky who joined the Union Army in 1864. He was stationed on a small island in a northern region of the Mississippi River. His job… guard confederate soldiers(prisoners). I wish I could included a picture – in this comment – I have of them standing guard above a 12ft wooden wall. But Oh LORD! Not only did he catch hell from the white racist prisoners, he and fellow members of the 108th Negro/Colored Infantry caught holy hell from the Union Soldiers and the neighboring town. I have been able to obtain documents from that prison (had to send in a special request) which included clippings from the newspaper of that region – from that time period. Aside from the obvious, the black soldiers were barred from the town and the newspaper's description of them was straight out of a KKK propaganda booklet. The story goes deeper. My grandfather stayed in that area after the war and became a doctor. But wait, it goes deeper. We can not see the future, nor what destiny we are leaving for those behind us, but if we do right for the right reasons, who knows what the future holds. Well, 120 years after my grandfather protected the interests of this country, on that small 2 X 3 mile island – which saw the deaths of over 3000 Confederate and Union Soldiers (deployable conditions) – I was given the opportunity to bury my father on that same patch of island. Twenty years later I had to bury my wife 1oo yards away from him – on that same island. Think of the possibilities and what if? There is a story (imo) within that ONE HUNDRED AND FIFTY YEAR SPAN.


Buck and the Preacher?


Does Posse, Aidos Amigos and Boss Nigger count? I had to throw those three in there

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