SOUTH SHORE — A short film featuring voices and visuals of Black Chicago cowboys in its dramatic retelling of Black American history has received a city grant to distribute and screen the film at festivals and events.
“Room Rodeo,” set for its first public screening May 12, is a film about a Chicago boy on a mission to prove he is a descendant of legendary Black cowboy Bill Pickett.
The drama-documentary hybrid stars 9-year-old D’Andre Davis as young Jamil, and it features interviews and footage of Black cowboys and historians from around the nation.
South Shore bull rider Aaron Baxter; his mom, Sharon; and Murdock — “The Man With No First Name” who founded the Broken Arrow Riding Club and organizes annual South Side horse rides — are among the film’s interviewees.
“It was so important for us to reach the Black cowboy community in all forms … for us to contribute to the work that has been done by the cowboy community, by historians — by musicians, even — who are working to preserve and elevate this history,” co-producer Chloe Herring said.
Herring, a Columbia College graduate student who works with the South Shore-based film nonprofit Sisters in Cinema, received a grant for the project from the city’s Individual Artists Program.
“Room Rodeo” was one of 162 recipients of the grants, which ranged from $800 to $5,000 each. The funding will help with the film’s distribution as its creators enter it into film festivals, create educational programs and work to screen it at live rodeo events in the future.
Reclaiming and sharing Black cowboys’ influence on American history is the primary goal of the film, which serves as Herring’s thesis project.
In one scene, interviewees note the ties between “cowboy” and the racist use of “boy” to disrespect Black men. “To be a cowboy, in essence, is to be a Black man,” Baxter says.
The creators said they wanted to send the message to Black children and families their ancestors shaped the modern image of the cowboy — and reflect how Black people continue to define the cowboy lifestyle to this day.
That history is reflected in clips of “The Bulldogger,” a 1922 film starring Pickett that was one of the first films to center a Black rodeo star, and other historical footage.
The producers tapped partners such as Gloria Austin, of the National Multicultural Western Heritage Museum; photojournalist Ivan McClellan and Pickett’s great-nephew, Gerald Anderson, to bring the Black cowboys’ past into the present.
“The Black children in our film, they said, ‘Now we know that Black cowboys actually exist,’” Herring said. “To know the history and contributions that Black people made to the American West, that just needed to be shared.”
The film’s production has been “a real exercise of being mindful of other people’s experiences,” co-producer Lola Mosanya said.
Mosanya is British, while director Daniel Kayamba was born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and raised in Maine. Both said they enjoyed the opportunity to learn about new aspects of Black American culture and reflect their knowledge to a wider audience.
“I’m really invested in telling stories about Black identity and getting to know different versions of the Black experience, especially as a Black British person,” Mosanya said. “Just because you’re Black, it doesn’t give you ownership of anybody else’s stories.”
As a child in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, cowboys on TV were “always a white dude with the guns and a bandana,” Kayamba said. But working on the film expanded his understanding of what a cowboy is and can be, thanks to Black cowboys like Baxter and Murdock, who “have their own swagger,” he said.
“It’s so cool to see how we have a long history of translating our own style and our own history,” Kayamba said.
Films on Black communities often deal “with a lot of really harsh stuff,” so it was a joy to work on a piece that honors Black people’s contributions and successes, Kayamba said.
No matter the critical response, creating an entertaining and educational film about Black people — with a diverse cast and crew, to boot — already made the production a success, he said.
“We need more stories like this,” Kayamba said. “This is my last film at Columbia, and there’s no other way I would’ve loved to finish out my undergrad” studies.
“Room Rodeo” will be screened online for 24 hours starting 7 p.m. May 12. A virtual Q&A session will follow at 7 p.m. May 13.
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