I was able to catch a screener of the approximately 18-minute short I Am John Wayne, which Courtney profiled on the site last week. That post attracted much debate in the comment section, mostly due to the John Wayne reference in its title, and the possible negative connotations of that alleged racist character.
Directed by Christina Choe, the short follows a young black cowboy (a fantastic Jamir Daaliya), who is bereaved by the death of his best friend. The short continues to make its rounds in the film festival circuit this year. It garnered a Grand jury prize for best short film at the Slamdance Film Festival this past January.
To writer/director Choe’s defense, the John Wayne reference is used solely as a re-appropriation of a symbolic/iconic figure – a tough, invincible man. Besides proving to catch your attention, the name John Wayne is not mentioned even once throughout.
Although the more I think of it, I see the paradox of the title’s symbolism and our young black “cowboy” in the film. We follow a young teen’s obvious, yet subdued struggle with grief – shock, denial, and anger – following the death of his best friend Charlie, who died in a senseless street crime.
Against his mother’s wishes to wear a suit for the day’s funeral proceedings, the rebellious teen leaves the house, changes into street clothes, and goes to tend to his deceased friend’s horse. A caretaker, perhaps his best friend’s father, who attempts to persuade him to attend the funeral to no avail, tells him the horse is now his to look after.
Without the man’s permission, the teen leaves the stable with the horse, and, in a melancholic scene, rides it through the New York streets. It’s a beautifully photographed sequence; the film is has great production – visual, sound – quality, which are main highlights.
He menacingly confronts a group of white teenagers, when they ridicule him. Our cowboy displaces his anger and is ready for a fight. In an earlier scene, he’s stopped by a group of black teens, acquainted with the events that led to his friend’s Charlie’s murder. They advise him to take revenge and even offer him a gun, but the teen passively turns them down.
Through the duration, he tries his best to not break down, to not confront the painful loss; besides angry, he’s dismissive and to some degree in denial. In a scene where he takes his horse to the pier, he encounters a girl who wants to feed the horse with him. She asks him to sit with her at the beach; he refuses at first, not wanting to leave the horse alone, but ends up taking her up on it. When the conversation of his friend’s passing comes up, he tries to change the subject – by impulsively kissing her. Well, she doesn’t kiss him back, and decides to get going.
To his misfortune, his horse is now gone. After a dire search for him, he finds it vandalized, not hurt, but with scribbled writing all over its body.
In short, it’s a story about grief in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy. A young man hasn’t processed his complex feelings, delaying the inevitable pain and suffering of his current reality. He rather take what’s left of his late friend – the horse, which represents a shared passion, their past time – and ride it unaffectedly and in total control of his life, much like John Wayne himself.