When the Houston Cinema Arts Festival, operating continuously since its launch in 2009, unwinds later this week the category Yeehaw Agenda celebrates the vision of pop culture commentator Bri Malandro.
Malandro’s popular online observations embrace African American cowboy lifestyles from the past to the present including music, movies and social media.
Yeehaw Agenda will feature five distinct films including the Brazil adventure thriller “Bacurau;” a co-production from the USA and Philippines about an aspiring country singer “Yellow Rose;” “When I Get Home” from Houston native (and sister of Beyoncé) Solange Knowles; a series of five short subjects under the moniker “Brokeback;” and a groundbreaking although little known documentary “Black Rodeo,” from 1972 that chronicles the first rodeo to take place in Harlem.
BylineHouston spoke by phone to “Black Rodeo” director Jeff Kanew in advance of his appearance in Houston with the film.
“I’m fine, I don’t aspire to great, I’ve given that up,” laughs Kanew.
Kanew broke into helming movies by editing movie trailers. Some of the trailers he cut include “The Graduate,” “Midnight Cowboy,” “Lion in Winter,” “Rocky,” “Annie Hall” to name a few. “I did hundreds of trailers,” says Kanew.
“It was the beginning of the Blaxploitation phenomenon where you had “Shaft” and “Superfly” and they discovered that the black audience was a great movie going audience. At the time I was trying to write a black themed western, because there had never been one made,” says Kanew. “It was about a slave that escaped and went West. Eventually there was a similar film that was made with Fred Williamson called ‘The Legend of Nigger Charlie.’
“A friend of mine told me about an all black rodeo that was going to be in Harlem. I was living in New York at the time. I got in touch with the organization that was putting it on and we made a deal and I came down with a team of cameramen. One was an expert in slow motion photography and the rest were New York cameramen,” says Kanew.
“We filmed what happened. No one knew what to expect – it was in an area between Manhattan and Queens on Randall’s Island along the East River.
“We filmed the first day, which was a Friday and it was exciting and you could feel the energy of the people. They had never seen anything like this. People were unaware about black cowboys in the Old West. They were used to seeing pictures of scrawny white guys with moustaches.
“I thought it would be great if some celebrity would come down. At the time I had a lawyer who also represented Mohammad Ali named Bob Arum. This was during the time when Ali was not allowed to fight because of his court situation.”
Even though he was the world heavyweight champion Ali was suspended while his legal trials for refusing the draft during the Vietnam War. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, where Ali was exonerated.
“Sure enough Ali was in New York and decided to come. The last ten minutes of the film documents his interacting with the cowboys and even riding a bull,” says Kanew.
“Nobody was crazy enough to put Mohammad on a real bull so they had him on a tame bull. They let it out of the stall and the bull just stops and starts eating grass – we don’t show that in the film. It would be anti-climatic.”
Kanew was able to supply a wall-to-wall soundtrack of rhythm and blues with artists like Aretha Franklin, B.B. King, Ray Charles, Little Richard, Joe Simon and Lee Dorsey to accompany the footage.
“The music made the whole project theatrical. I also felt it carried the film in addition to the audience shots.” Says Kanew. “During the bull riding scenes I had Little Richard singing ‘Slippin’ and Sliddin.’
“Roping cattle had a different feel. For bronco riding we’re using Lee Dorsey’s ‘Get Off My Back.’”
Kanew also had the opportunity to meet Hollywood legend Woody Strode who had appeared in such epic films as “Spartacus” and “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.” A portion of the middle of “Black Rodeo” has Strode recalling the history of the Buffalo Soldiers.
“Woody had visited the first day of the rodeo. I was aware of him from “Spartacus” and “Sgt. Rutledge” and I felt we needed someone to do an on-camera narrative,” says Kanew.
“Woody was in fact a cowboy before he was an actor. He was happy to do it. The whole history section – he knew it all. I pretty much let the camera roll and he was telling stories about Deadwood Dick and Bill Pickett and that became the spine of that part of the movie.”
Years later Kanew screened “Black Rodeo” at a seminar at the Western Heritage Museum. “Woody and I showed the movie to three people in the audience and then afterwards he and I did a question and answer and we had one question and that was that.”
Kanew and Hollywood
“I was only in Houston one time. I was scouting locations and went to Huntsville prison,” says Kanew
The film he refers to is “Eddie Macon’s Run,” which was mainly shot in Laredo.
“The producer I was working with suggested we use Kirk Douglas for the heavy in the movie. It wasn’t that big a part. I didn’t think it was at his level but he agreed to do it.
He came down to location and things didn’t go well with us on the very first day.
“Kirk having been a producer and on so many movies had some notes. I was a novice and had written the script and was the director so I was defending what I wrote.
“Our first meeting was in his hotel room and he asked in his Kirk Douglas way ‘Did you see my notes?’
“We started to go through the notes and stupidly I was telling him why I didn’t want to do number one or number two or number three. When I got to number seven he said, ‘Let me tell you something, I’ve made a few movies, you know. I’m not right all the time, but I’m not wrong all the time either,’” recalls Kanew.
“So he asked me to leave the room and that was the beginning of our relationship.
“The next day as we were riding out to the location he told me that he’s seen my first movie and he respected it and when he made his suggestions he was trying to improve the film, it’s part of his process. He told me if you want to work with actors you have to make them think you’re listening. You may not agree with them but it’s important that you make the actors feel heard.
“I thought that was a good lesson and it goes on to this day. Kirk and I have been friends ever since and I consider him a mentor.”
Kanew went on to direct Douglas in “Tough Guys,” which was the last pairing of Douglas and Burt Lancaster and also the “Touched by an Angel” television episode where Douglas was nominated for an Emmy.
Kanew also made contacts throughout his career as a trailer editor with performers like Robert Redford.
“After ‘Black Rodeo’ I didn’t direct for several years and then around 1977 I got hungry so I optioned a book, “Natural Enemies” and I was putting together a small independent film. One of the actors I submitted the film to was Hal Holbrook who had just done ‘All The President’s Men.’
My first meeting with Holbrook was another example of how I didn’t realize actors need confidence in their directors. It was a dark complicated script. He decided not to do the film, and I was in a scramble to find an actor. Around then Redford called me and said ‘I finally read your script. It’s an important movie and don’t let anything stop you from making it.’
“So now I’m thinking if I don’t make this film Redford’s going to think I’m a wimp. So I told him I had Holbrook but I kind of lost him. So Redford offered to call Hal. Ten minutes later I got a call from Holbrook. ‘Hey you know that movie, if the parts still available I’d like to do it.’”
Their relation resulted in Redford hiring Kanew to be the editor on “Ordinary People” a film that won the 1980 Oscar for Best Motion Picture.
“I made ‘Black Rodeo’ and nobody saw it and ‘Eddie Macon’s Run’ didn’t really do well so its two strikes. And luckily a friend of mine, because that’s how Hollywood runs, was head of production at 20th Century Fox.
“Joe Wizan told me he could hire a couple of his friends and he sent a couple of scripts. One was called ‘Bachelor Party,’ one was called ‘Give Me An F,’ and then there was this script called ‘Revenge of the Nerds.’
“I couldn’t see myself doing that film, but I read the script, my friend’s trying to do me a favor, and I kind of related to it, the triumph of the underdog. Then the producers didn’t think I had a sense of humor based on my previous films so I flew out to L.A. and I guess I did okay because I got the job.”
For the trailer for “Revenge of the Nerds” Kanew hired Orson Welles to narrate the trailer.
“It was kind of like getting Ali to appear in ‘Black Rodeo.’ Welles charged $25,000 for a 15-minute recording session,” says Kanew.
The success of “Nerds” made Kanew a go-to director although he was now stereotyped as a comedy director.
“Everything I did after that was a comedy, I did a film called ‘Gotcha,’ and then ‘Troop Beverly Hills,’ and then ‘V.I Warshawski,’ which started out as mystery but bended out into comedy.
“So now I’m a comedy director although in my heart I’m more serious.”
Kanew will introduce “Black Rodeo” and participate in a post-screening Q&A with Bri Malandro at the Houston Cinema Arts Festival on Sunday, November 17, at 7 pm., at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.