Screened at a Premiere in Lawrence, Kansas: Actor Rick Schroder’s writing and directorial debut “Black Cloud” is thankfully more than a vanity project. Frequently the novice writer-director’s earnestness toward his subject, life on a contemporary Navajo reservation, trumps his missteps.The former “NYPD Blue” star has obviously spent enough time studying current conditions in Indian Country to get the details right. This sense of authenticity makes his tale of a fiery tempered Navajo boxer easier to take when it starts falling back on sports movie clichés (how many times does a boxer have to fall down before winning by a knockout?).
The title character (Eddie Spears) is a likable fellow who sometimes forgets to save his punching for the ring. Admittedly, he’s got a lot to upset him. His girlfriend Sammi (Julia Jones) is being hassled by her white ex-boyfriend (Schroder, in a delightfully skuzzy turn), a rodeo rider who’s also the father her child.
Sammi and Black Cloud are also hard up for a place to live because openings are rare, and an uncooperative, corrupt white bureaucrat (Wayne Knight) isn’t helping.
Needless to say all of these aggravations lead the normally good natured pugilist to swing his fists outside the ring. This gets him in trouble with the local sheriff (country singer Tim McGraw), whose nephew just happens to ride broncs. Worse, Black Cloud may be squandering his potential because his manager (Russell Means) believes the fighter has a shot at making the U.S. Olympic Team and turning pro.
Just about any of these elements has the making of a decent story. It’s almost as if Schroder has too much to work with. The subplot about Black Cloud and Sammi’s quest for a place to live could have feasibly made a compelling movie in itself. Instead, “Black Cloud” leaps from one piece of the tale to another with cursory resolutions. When characters discuss the deaths of loved ones, it’s brushed off before viewers have had a chance to take things in.
On the plus side, Schroder has obviously learned a lot about filmmaking because he’s acted professionally since he was a child. He coaxes solid performances from his fellow thespians (Means’ sympathetic performance is a standout). He also has a decent eye for action scenes and makes good use of gorgeous Arizona and Utah locations. He shoots in some of the same spots that John Ford used in his westerns but makes a much different point.In “Black Cloud” Schroder reminds viewers that John Wayne movies and Hollywood in general haven’t been fair to Native Americans. His desire to present a much fuller picture is commendable. At the packed, enthusiastic screening I attended he indicated he’d like to explore life in Indian Country again. If he can refine his writing and keep his heart in the right place, his next movie might offer the impact that “Black Cloud” is missing.