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.