I know what you’re thinking, That’s a black guy riding a horse, not John Wayne. You’re right, because Christina Choe’s short film, I Am John Wayne, depicts a metaphorical vision of the Wild West, which happens to be Brooklyn. The film opens with a memorial to the protagonist Taco’s best friend who was shot in a street dispute. The setup mimics “typical Wayne,” but the short's events progress differently. There are pictures of Taco and his friend riding on horses, having fun, and enjoying the good life. That good life, however, seems to only exist in the pictures.
Taco struggles to find his life's purpose in hard times and all the people around him can sense it, which is why everyone is trying to give advice: His mother orders him to wear a suit to the funeral, some neighborhood kids declare how he should get revenge, the stable owner tells him when he’s allowed to ride the Duke’s horse. They all want him to grieve in ways that make sense to them, to mourn as expected. All of them tell, but none of them listen.
Taco embodies John Wayne’s most famous beliefs, “A man ought'a do what he thinks is best,“ and “Talk low, talk slow, and don't say too much.” Most importantly he rejects violence for the sake of revenge. He celebrates his friend and pays his respects in a dignified way because as the Duke says, “Life's hard. It's even harder when you're stupid.” (I could do these quotes all day.)
The film works because it doesn’t romanticize what seems fantastical on paper—a black kid riding a horse through Brooklyn. Instead, Choe juxtaposes this sad, trotting cowboy figure against the grimy backdrop of poverty, the projects, and the once-thriving Coney Island. Yes, riding the horse is catharsis and getting to the ocean is freedom, but if you look away from life too long you’re going to lose the things that matter.
After you watch the film, read my interview with the director Christina Choe below. Enjoy.
VICE: John Wayne was always a man who represented the stoic ideal of masculinity. What did you intend to say with the film's connection to the actor?
Christina Choe: Thematically, I Am John Wayne is a meditation on violence, manhood in America, and race in the inner city. In many ways, Taco is the underbelly and the flip side of what John Wayne symbolized—the dominant authoritative white male, and the ideals of the American dream. At the same time, Taco shares some qualities with John Wayne—the quiet stoic silence he embodies in his face and soul and his character’s lonely courage to resist violence simply for the sake of revenge.
How did you approach blending Taco's cowboy characteristics with those traits of an underprivileged black youth from Brooklyn?
As a young black cowboy, Taco is a lone figure in the wild Wild West of Brooklyn trying to figure out how to be a man. In a world where guns and violence are all too common, Taco resists becoming the stereotypical macho, gangster archetype of a young African-American man in the hood, but at the same time finds it hard to deal with his emotions when faced with the shooting of his best friend. The community around him also participates in a collective act of denial and burying his pain becomes a survival tactic for Taco, who lives in a society where random violence occurs on a daily basis.
Taco, in essence, is appropriating the icon of John Wayne as an all American hero and subverting it. Both symbolically and literally, it is an identity that is impossible to achieve. Black cowboys were invisible and under-represented in Westerns, despite the fact that one fourth of the working cowboys in the 19th century were black. The title proclaims “I am John Wayne” as a shout or proclamation of “I am Somebody”!
Do horse farms exist like that in Brooklyn? I want to go. Now.
Yes. I first became aware of these communities, when I stumbled across the Black Cowboy Federation of Brooklyn ten years ago. That day I followed them, as they rode their horses through the streets from their horse stables near East New York all the way to the Brooklyn Bridge. People would come out of the houses in awe at the sight of them. The cowboys believed that it was their constitutional right to ride in the street and that the mission of their organization was to preserve the history of black cowboys and pass it down to the youth.
They were a really positive organization that worked to get kids off the streets with horses. Years later when I was having difficulty getting permission to film there, I found out there were also urban horse stables in Philly. All of the horse riding scenes in I Am John Wayne, except for the Coney Island stuff, was actually filmed in West Philly and North Philly. For years black cowboys bought horses at livestock auctions and cared for them at stables in North and West Philadelphia built on small plots of inner-city land or in former factory and warehouse spaces. Some people estimate that just 20, 30 years ago, there were 400 or 500 cowboys in the city. Sadly that number is becoming extinct as many have been shut down due to redevelopment or mismanagement.
The film is as much about brotherhood and friendship as it is about individualism. But beyond the human and animal relationships in the film, can you talk about how you used New York and Coney Island as characters to express those feelings? Why did you choose New York?
Because Taco is such an outsider, I felt that he would go somewhere like the ocean to escape from his neighborhood. The backstory is that his best friend Jerry and he would ride out there and hang out when he was alive. The reason the story is set in Brooklyn, because it was the place that made sense geographically, that Taco could conceivably ride his horse from a horse stable around East New York to Coney Island.
What are you working on now?
I hope to shoot my first feature next spring called Nancy. It’s about a serial imposter, Nancy, who is desperate for love and connection. She creates a fake blog and catfishes a lover, until her hoaxes cause epic and tragic consequences. Nancy was recently selected for Emerging Storytellers at the 2013 IFP Week Project Forum and one of 12 projects for the 2013/14 Venice Biennale College Cinema Program.
Jeffrey Bowers is a tall mustached guy from Ohio who's seen too many weird movies. He currently lives in Brooklyn, working as an art and film curator. He is a programmer at the Hamptons International Film Festival and screens for the Tribeca Film Festival. He also self-publishes a super fancy mixed-media art serial called PRISM index.