There is a great scene near the end of “Black Cloud” where the titular character played by Eddie Spears is inside a ring duking it out with a loudmouth opponent, when the opponent realizes, much to his horror, that no matter how much punishment he dishes out, this guy — this Injun standing in front of him — isn’t going down. Ever. The sudden shock of realization, and almost numbing fear that immediate follows, that plays across the boxer’s face is just brilliantly executed by the actor, the script, and the director.
That scene is also indicative of “Black Cloud” the movie. The directorial debut of child actor turned respectable adult actor turned writer/director/producer, “Black Cloud” is Rick Schroder’s tribute to the spirit of the Navajo Native Americans, and it’s filled with great moments where it simply works beyond words, and moments where it stumbles mightily. “Black Cloud” is set in the Navajo reservation in Arizona, where boxer Black Cloud (Spears) spends his time raging against the world and all who threatens his existence as a wronged member of the human species.
Carrying a mountain-sized chip on his shoulder, Black Cloud’s only hope of salvation are the kind love of a single young mother, Sammi (Julia Jones), and the patient tutelage of former boxing champ Bud (Russell Means). Alas, life in the modern reservation is filled with pitfalls, more so for a man of ill temperament like Black Cloud, who can’t come to terms with his own demons, a failure that may prove his undoing because a U.S. Olympic scout, searching for boxers to compete for the U.S, has offered an uninterested Black Cloud the chance of a lifetime.
Less the journey of Black Cloud from reservation of the Olympics (in fact, the film ends with Black Cloud on his way to the Olympic trials, with no guarantees that he’ll even make the team), Schroder’s debut film is more of a character study of the titular hero’s ups and downs — but mostly downs. Written by Schroder, who also co-stars as a ne’er-do-well cowboy, “Black Cloud” isn’t shy about piling on the miseries for its star, but never does it to the extent that the film becomes grim and nihilistic. At almost every turn, there is an obstacle in front of Black Cloud — Wayne Knight as a slimy bureaucrat, country singer Tim McGraw (“Friday Night Lights”) as a Sheriff playing favorites, and even his own father, who has turned their house into a 24-hour party den for himself and his drunken friends.
Inevitably, as we know he would, Black Cloud comes to realize what he must do in order to achieve a semblance of happiness, and sets about it with the same dogged determination and unwillingness to back down. Credit goes to Schroder, who doesn’t turn Black Cloud into a flower hippie (as one character remarks); instead, Black Cloud maintains the piss and vinegar that fills him when we first saw him, only now he’s more focused, and has a goal with which to strive for. Eddie Spears does well with the role, although there are times when Schroder fails to rein in some of the character’s over-the-top spitfire. Even so, there’s a certain likeability factor about the young man, the way he sneers at any and all obstacles, as if to say, “You’ll never force me on my knees, even if you kill me.” Spears is also very physical, which no doubt helped him to get the role.
“Black Cloud” does falter every now and then, and as mentioned, for every great moment the film offers up, it has its share of cringe-worthy moments. There are more than a few stilted lines in the script, especially during scenes between Spears and Julia Jones’ Sammi, but those are easily even out by the film’s better moments, in particular every scene between Spears and the veteran Russell Means. And there’s something to be said about Schroder playing the sleazy Eddie. No doubt Schroder’s name in the cast helped sell the film, and it’s impressive, as well as showing a general lack of vanity in the young man, that he gave himself such a villainous character to play.
With the help of cinematographer Steve Gainer, Schroder has squeezed a lot out of his limited budget. “Black Cloud” has gorgeous scenery, and the film never has that static, flat look that many independent films (especially those by first-time directors) can’t seem to avoid. Alas, Schroder falls into some familiar traps, in particular the extended scenes of animals — eagles in flight, wild horses roaming canyons, etc. — that is so stereotypical of Hollywood trying to glam up Indian life. As for major gaps in story continuity, there is the complete lack of resolution for Nathaniel Arcand’s character, which will no doubt leave audiences scratching their heads.
Still, one is inclined to forgive Schroder these trespasses. As first features go, “Black Cloud” gives good reason to look forward to better things from Schroder. Even flawed, the script has that inspiring spirit that you just can’t help but like; that is, unless you simply refuse to embrace anything beyond the doom and gloom of pretentious cinema. Schroder clearly has a lot of respect and admiration for the Navajos and their culture, and that comes through. And while it has nowhere near the grit and realness of “Smoke Signals”, “Black Cloud” should hold its own as an honest look at Native American life in the 21st century.
Rick Schroder (director) / Rick Schroder (screenplay)
CAST: Eddie Spears …. Black Cloud
Julia Jones …. Sammi
Russell Means …. Bud
Nathaniel Arcand …. Jimmy
Tim McGraw …. Sheriff Powers
Rick Schroder …. Eddie