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"Cutting Horse" And The Need for More Black Westerns

by Nijla Mumin
November 15, 2011 7:37 AM
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"Cutting Horse," directed by Larry Clark

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

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  • eshowoman | November 17, 2011 1:39 PMReply

    How about black cowgirls?

  • Marquis | November 15, 2011 11:02 PMReply

    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 | November 15, 2011 3:09 PMReply

    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.

  • CareyCarey | November 15, 2011 2:20 PMReply

    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.

  • Jug | November 16, 2011 1:51 PM

    I'd be lying if I said it wasn't spurred by the idea of the movie, I am after all a Hollywood hoe LOL I read more scripts than books (to my eternal shame), but it was a great time to get back into reading novels. And so I have. I'm about to get into Ted Kennedy's bio & Zone One by Colson Whitehead. But Lightning is a tough read. For starters, the author is a poet by trade, so often it takes her three pages to describe the fields they're traveling through LOL But once I got used to that I looked forward to it. It was a romantic view of open range life & at same time it mirrored a beauty against the atrocities committed by both groups, the Native Americans & the settlers. And those depictions, the brutality, were reeeeally tough. But they were given their thoughtful due-as occurrences of War rather than "savagery" of a people. Kinda reminds me of the comments about DJANGO UNCHAINED, about the raping of slave, but that is indeed another post. Britt's story, which I'm interested in when it rolls around, is as earnest as it is sad. Dude searched for years for his wife & the woman of that town-and then after he got them back he went to war against them straight up Rambo style. And as for GANGSTER, yeah hearing that story-and your story-was too crazy. Only problem with that movie is that in order to get it made, they had to slash so much of the budget, because the original script had sooo much more about Lucas' trips to Southeast Asia, and his ferrying the dope back stateside that the budget ballooned. But it was worth it man, an engrossing story to say the least. Glad you survived it bruh.

  • CareyCarey | November 16, 2011 12:04 AM

    Jug, I read the link and both of those books/stories sound delicious. So you read the novel! Question: What inspired you to do that? I mean, I love that genre but I thought I was an odd duck. Hey, I can see Robert Duvall in both movies (love his acting). I loved Open Range but I do not quite remember watching Lonesome Dove. On the Ridley Scott tip, I thoroughly enjoyed Gladiator and Hannibal was good and American Gangster is one of my personal favorites. I enjoyed the acting and I can relate to the subject matter and the lead character. Don't tell nobody, but I was a drug smuggler during the Viet Nam War. That's the truth. I was in the U.S. Air Force, consequently I was able to fly anywhere in the world ( for free) that had an Air Force Base. Our customs/checkpoints were slack to say the least, plus I knew the guys at my home base. I gambled and drank with them...AND I did favors for them b/c I had control of all their records. Anyway, that life is behind me ( I paid a severe penalty) and I would love to see Ridley Scott make "The Color Of Lightning,"

  • Jug | November 15, 2011 9:12 PM

    Okay, damnit LOL Just know that the last word of that URL is "scott". :-)

  • Jug | November 15, 2011 9:11 PM

  • Jug | November 15, 2011 9:10 PM

    Carey, I'm waiting for this project:
    I read the novel & it's a beast! My fear, from prior experience, is that the movie won't be even & it'll focus more on the Quaker than the black dude, whereas the Black dude's story is waaay more compelling (the Quaker's story is too, but you get what I'm sayin' LOL). We shall see, I love a good western...

  • CareyCarey | November 15, 2011 2:57 PM

    It would be nice if S & A could find a way to post the picture ( Black Union Soldiers standing guard atop and around large Confederate Prisoner Camp) that I referred to. It is a piece of our history that few know about. And I believe only a minute few has ever seen. I'll even send along exerts from the paper I spoke of. Only a few has seen that also. That newspaper is still in existence.

  • Donella | November 15, 2011 12:05 PMReply

    Buck and the Preacher?

  • Sergio | November 15, 2011 11:01 AMReply

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

  • Neziah | November 15, 2011 12:44 PM

    Don't forget "Take a Hard Ride" and "Joshua".

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