'Bull' Neglects to Think About Race Critically [Review]
There have been many films where two characters from very different walks of life barrel into one another—clinging to each other for one reason or another despite their differences. Annie Silverstein's feature film debut, Bull focuses one of these peculiar relationships. The San Antonio-set film follows 14-year old Kris (Amber Havard)— a wayward teen spiraling down the wrong path. Struggling to maintain a connection with her incarnated mother (Sara Albright), while living in her ornery grandmother's (Keeli Wheeler) care—Kris is trying to maintain a sense of stability for her little sister, Chance (Keira Bennett). However, when she’s not acting as the main caretaker in her household, she drinks, parties and pops pills. Kris’ rebellious ways begin to seep into her neighbor, Abe's (Rob Morgan) life.
A former bull-rider and current rodeo production athlete, Abe goes out of town each weekend to work the Professional Bull Riders (PBR) circuit. Seizing her "opportunity,” Kris leads her rag-tag crew of racist little friends into Abe's home—leaving it in complete disarray by the time they're finished. However, instead of sending Kris to juvie—Abe uses compassion. This one of the first times the issue of race relations begins to ring aloud in Bull. If the roles were reversed—a Black teen boy terrorizing a middle age white woman, Abe would almost certainly be jailed.
After commanding his young neighbor restore order to his home—Abe inadvertently opens Kris' eyes to the world of rodeo. Enchanted by the wild majesty of the bull riders, the sport, and the community around it all—the precocious teen convinces herself that she's going to make money bull riding. With her mother just weeks away from being released from prison, and with the flimsy possibility of a new life on the horizon—Kris glues herself to Abe's side—infiltrating his life with the hopes that he'll teach her to bull ride.
Bull isn't a fairytale—and real life seldom pans out how we hope it might. Carrying the weight of his own past—a father who was crushed to death while bull riding, old injuries, and a narcotics dependency, Abe begins to help Kris when he's barely able to help himself. Rather annoyingly, she becomes his lifeline. He pushes away advice from friends (and his doctor) who tell him to take a rest. There is also Sheila (Yolonda Ross), the woman that he loves, but he's too selfish to allow himself to be with her. Instead, it's Kris that becomes a constant in his life. Still wading through her own issues—her feelings of abandonment and awkwardness—Kris begins selling pills to make what she feels is "easy money." But she soon learns nothing worth getting come easy, especially when it affects the one person who tries to help her.
The main issue with Bull is that Silverstein fails to look a race critically in this film. It was terrifying to watch a middle age Black man have a young white teen girl as his constant companion in Texas. In the real world, Abe would be in immediate danger, and because that was never acknowledged on screen, the film as well as Abe and Kris' kinship never felt authentic.
Still, Bull does have some nice elements. The Black rodeo circuit which is hardly ever seen on screen has a massive presence in this film—showcasing the Black cowboy and the rodeo subculture in the Black community. Per usual, Mudbound actor Rob Morgan is a force—his quiet pain and determination keep the viewer interested in the film's trajectory despite its missteps.
Kris doesn't have many options—but neither does Abe. To lean on him so fully as her mentor, laying her burdens upon him, despite the grief that she's caused him was frustrating. Also, Kris doesn't even have any standout natural talent for bull riding that would make her monopolization of Abe's time worthwhile. Perhaps that's why the film never truly found its spark. By overlooking the nuances of race and leaving Kris without any real trajectory towards the rodeo, the audience is often left to consider what all of this is even for.
Despite it all, there was one element of the film that was pleasing to see. Though Kris might be frustrating and perhaps even a bit entitled, she was never without her agency—her ability to move and chose and to even define her boundaries as a teen girl helped this slow-moving film subvert an obvious conclusion.
Bull premiered at the Cannes Film Festival.
Photo Credit: Bull