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.
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.