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The documentary John Ware Reclaimed follows filmmaker Cheryl Foggo on her quest to re-examine the mythology surrounding the legendary Black cowboy who settled in Alberta before the turn of the 20th century.NFB

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  • John Ware Reclaimed
  • Written and directed by Cheryl Foggo
  • Classification G; 73 minutes

With her second film for the National Film Board, director, author and playwright Cheryl Foggo turns her lens to the complex histories of Albertan folk hero John Ware.

Those familiar with this name but not the man are many – the legendary Black cowboy settled in Alberta just ahead of the 20th century in a region that now bears his name upon many of its schools, geographical sites and, as of 2012, a stamp issued by Canada Post in honour of Black History Month.

In many ways, Ware and his legacy are highly visible in terms of these nomenclatures, but suffer from a vagueness in their historical specificity.

Foggo’s John Ware Reclaimed sets out to position Ware with more accuracy, depth and care than he has thus far been afforded by his few, largely white, biographers. She shares an ancestral community with Ware, herself being a descendant of one of the many Black families who, in 1910, travelled to Southern Alberta during The Great Migration with hopes of greater civic freedoms within Canada.

This hope was sadly misplaced, as Black migrants here, too, suffered from many of the same, if not additional, violations of rights they had faced south of the border.

In many ways, Foggo and her family are able to identify with the challenges faced not just by Ware and his family, but with the issues of Black Canadian historiography. She touches on the anti-Blackness realized not just in the harm subjected on Black Canadians through generations, but also the anti-Blackness which likewise and inevitably finds its way into the archives of Black Canadian lives.

Foggo’s film sets out to position Ware with more accuracy, depth and care than he has thus far been afforded by his few, largely white, biographers.NFB

Foggo’s project is one that is both familial and communal – she researches personal archives, conducts archaeological digs and, in the film’s best moments, speaks with a Blackfoot elder about the intersection of Black and Indigenous histories, not just those narratives passed down through community, but also those transmuted or displaced through their supposed “translation” by white settlers.

It is undoubtedly an interesting subject for Foggo to take on. However, the director has missed the mark in terms of how she has chosen to share the information on Ware that she has painstakingly committed herself to over the past several years. Throughout John Ware Reclaimed, it feels like we are waiting for a narrative momentum that never realizes, despite Foggo’s clear enthusiasm for the topic and perhaps unintentional promise of something truly exciting.

Ware’s history is largely communicated to us through Foggo’s voiceover narration, which, alongside bland animated scenes re-enacting these words, as well as misplaced musical live accompaniment throughout the film, comes to shape a film that lacks in personality, energy and, over all, a sense of how the process and tools of filmmaking could potentially dynamize a subject such as John Ware.

It likewise suffers from a distracted narrative lens and aims to take on too much within the span of its relatively short run time. Too often we move from the distinctive histories of the Black-led ranching frontier in Southern Alberta and its concomitant myths and the suppressed or mistold stories of the Black labourers, farmers, cowboys and families who lived there toward all too lengthy and broad discussions of anti-Blackness in Canada.

While these moments and words linking the present with Ware’s past are no doubt relevant, they enjoy a rather large presence within a film where several key discoveries about Ware’s life often feel anti-climactic, non-conclusive or even elided.

Foggo, herself, is quick to point to the facts of the matter: Finding the heart and truth of Black lives within a white settler state’s national narrative is a job that often feels endless. It’s obvious that heart is clearly something that Foggo brings to this project in spades, but unfortunately it is the film’s lack of craft, creative accomplishment and narrative direction that will likely leave audiences wondering what they have learned.

John Ware Reclaimed is available to stream free on NFB.ca starting Feb. 8

Special to The Globe and Mail

In the interest of consistency in critics’ reviews across artistic mediums, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts, and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a critic’s pick designation across all coverage. (Television reviews, typically based on an incomplete season, are exempt.)