(***Winner of the Hammer To Nail Short Film Contest: March 2012!*** I Am John Wayne won the Grand Jury Prize for Best Narrative Short Film at the 2012 Slamdance Film Festival. Visit the film’s Facebook page to learn more.)
The street where I live in Brooklyn has a rather unfortunate nickname: “the OK Corral.” Not long ago, a teenager was shot and killed here (intense police presence, as well as recently installed surveillance cameras, have calmed things down). As portrayed by the media, these incidents happen so often that inner city residents don’t even mourn this consistent loss of life—or, at the very least, nobody puts forth much of an effort or desire to understand the emotional fallout that impacts these communities. Having recently experienced one of these tragedies first-hand, Christina Choe’s I Am John Wayne resonated much more personally for me. But more than that, watching it reminded me just how infrequently any of us are challenged—through the media, through the arts, through anything—to consider these types of situations from the inside-out. Rarely are we asked to relate to this endemic pain.
Eric, aka “Taco,” has just lost his best friend to the streets. But instead of attending the funeral, Taco would rather pay his respects by doing what he and his friend loved most: heading to a nearby stable, grooming and taking his friend’s favorite horse, Chance, out for a ride. On his way to the stable, Taco is confronted by some neighborhood kids, who express their condolences before suggesting that that only way to redeem his best friend’s honor is for him to grab a gun and handle his business. Taco demurs.
At the stable, the head trainer orders Taco not to take Chance for a walk, but Taco doesn’t listen. Instead, he throws a saddle on the horse and journeys through the cement streets of East New York, winding up at the Coney Island boardwalk. An innocent connection with a young Russian-American girl brings a flicker of optimism to the day, but when he realizes he’s been duped, Taco’s sorrow widens.
The image of a young black teenager trotting on a horse through inner city New York is as obvious a metaphor as there could be: the modern ghetto is America’s new Wild West. Yet, fortunately, Choe brings an honest naturalism to her directing, which subdues the bluntness of that metaphor. As a result, I Am John Wayne speaks first and foremost as a story of personal, individual loss. But it also stands firmly as a sobering wake-up call to those viewers who shrug their shoulders every time they hear that another inner city youth has been murdered.
A film like this could go wrong in so many ways that it becomes all the more exhilarating to reach the end credits and realize that Choe has somehow kept it on course. She has chosen her collaborators wisely—cinematographer Andres Karu shoots with handheld intimacy on fittingly grainy Super 16mm, and composers This Is Your Captain Speaking bring a Western-inflected edge to their electric guitar score. Yet ultimately, what makes I Am John Wayne so successful is that Choe never sensationalizes or romanticizes this inner city environment. The distinction is a major one: she has chosen to see the world through her character’s eyes, not her own.
— Michael Tully
***Watch The Film Now Through April 15th Only!!!***