Fire on the Hill—Black Cowboys and the Fight to Live out Their Vision of the West
Words by Erek Bell | Photos: ©Brett Fallentine
From the dawn of the West, African Americans have played a vital and intrinsic role in shaping the culture and even the definition of what it means to be a cowboy. The word itself, cowboy, was initially applied only to blacks working on ranches, while their white counterparts were dubbed cow hands. Yet despite this fact, the prevalence of African American cowboy culture seems to be vacant in our collective conscious when we romanticize the West and the cowboys riding off into the sunset. In LA, a fire has done even more to threaten this fragile space in which African American cowboys are free to roam.
It was a chance meeting through Airbnb that led us at American Trails to meet Brett Fallentine, a founding board member of Urban Saddles and director of the documentary film, Fire on the Hill. Brett has taken a deep dive into this culture, and presents through stunning camera work and powerful storytelling, the plight and reality that is being a black cowboy on the streets of one of America’s most crime notorious neighborhoods. I sit down with Brett over WhatsApp, we drink some wine and discuss his film, the cowboy code, and the role that this culture has in shaping the community that it finds itself in.
It all started, like most good things do, at a party.
- I had heard from a friend at this party, that there were these groups of men, women, and children riding on horseback alongside the freeways down in LA. I had long been a fan of the Western film genre, and the image of a cowboy riding a horse through South Central was something I had to see. So I sat there at these locations and waited. Five hours and no horses, no cowboys in sight. I got out of the car and there it was, some manure on the pavement. I followed the trail of manure to this stable, The Hill. I talked to everyone I could there. It lead to horseback riding, and me getting deeper and deeper into this culture.
With his camera at hand and the eyes and ears for storytelling, Brett embarked on a seven year long journey that would span heartaches and joys, trials and tribulations, and challenged perceptions and assumptions. Through the good, the bad, and the ugly, he managed to show just how similar we all are.
- Fire on the Hill is a film about a culture of black cowboys and cowgirls in South Central LA and the last inner-city horse stable, The Hill, which burnt down in 2012. I followed three of the cowboys in the wake of that fire, documenting how they are trying to rebuild the stable and their lives—trying to understand what it means to be a cowboy.
The Hill stables were mysteriously burned down in 2012, and the community tried desperately to rebuild it. Facing an uphill battle, including a standoffish landlord, the Hill remains a vacant lot. Since then, one of the main characters of the film, Guan, has started a nonprofit called Urban Saddles. The group has built stables not far from the original location of the Hill, and is offering educational programs with a focus on youth outreach. In South Central LA, crime touches aspects of nearly everyone’s life. But, the way of the cowboy has been a saving grace for many in the community, a means to escape the streets and instead, hit that old dusty trail.
- Urban Saddles is just down the street from the old Hill. The property is much bigger with several stables and corrals for riding. It’s a place for families, for community. We’ll be running our first pilot program in May of this year, and we already have 18 kids signed up. The aforementioned landlord has even come out of the woodwork and has pledged that the original Hill site will be incorporated into Urban Saddles as a historical learning center, focusing on the culture and history of black cowboys like the legendary Charlie Sampson.
The cowboy might be one of the most stereotypical images of Americana that can be imagined. But beyond the hats and boots lies something deeper—a code. A code that in an almost creed like manner, teaches kindness and morality, and offers lessons in character building
- Each one of the main characters that we are following, I think, are trying to look for their own cowboy code, what it means to be a cowboy in their own life. With Guan, we see perseverance. Despite being down and faced with adversity, he finds something in himself to succeed, resulting in Urban Saddles. There’s Calvin, who seeks to be good, to be a family man, searching to do the right thing, to be honorable to his wife and kids. And Chris, well he is the lone rider, he is trying to stake his own plot of land out there within the world of professional bull riding.
Now close your eyes. Picture a cowboy riding on a steed through the deserts of the West. What comes to mind? Probably, a figure that looks a lot like the Lone Ranger, or John Wayne. But why is it that we often see a white man? Hollywood whitewashing and our conception of what a cowboy is supposed to look like, has done a lot to cover up the complete representation of the many faces that are indeed cowboys and cowgirls.
- I don’t think people are aware that it is prevalent, because it is prevalent, it’s hugely prevalent! The idea of the cowboy in my mind is not a man, it’s not a woman. It’s not any creed or any race. It’s this mythical figure, the cowboy, it’s one of the American myths. And the black cowboy especially, has been there from the beginning. The fact that people don’t know that the black cowboy exists in this American culture, is not a direct representative. History has overlooked this culture. Seeing cowboys now in pop culture is not a new thing, it’s really an old thing—it’s a story that is just now being picked up by pop culture and news.
Speaking of pop culture, this last summer we were bombarded with this track, a strumming banjo kicks it off and then that infectious hook, that ear worm, digs deep in to the brain, “Yeah, I’m gonna take my horse to the old town road…” Old Town Road by Lil Nas X soared to the top of the charts with a cowboy hat by Gucci and Wranglers on his booty, but what has it meant for the black cowboy culture and community?
- There are those that are selling an image of a black cowboy, and for one reason or another it’s attractive right now and getting a lot of exposure. I think that’s great and good for a film like ours. On the other hand you have men and women who are real and live this lifestyle—a lifestyle which inherently isn’t flashy or about self-promotion. This culture is about a mindset, and I think that’s who these people are in this film. Be it generational or more recent, they have found something soulful in it, some solace, and something to be preserved.
It is this insight that makes Fire on the Hill so special. We as an audience are forced to see something that perhaps, we are so unfamiliar with. Or in other cases, we have only built up walls against it. Brick and mortar fortifications that block out the reality, this different shade of color that is South Central. The fact that there is a thriving lifestyle at the fringes is refreshing, and rejuvenating. Don’t for a second bog yourself down in all of the mainstream media which seemingly only focuses on the bad—the crime the gangs, the drugs, the deaths.
- As filming progressed, I really started thinking about what my perceptions of South LA were. I was a kid that grew up in the 90’s, I saw the LA riots on TV. Then there was the Crips and Bloods and the rap scene, and the media really shaped my perception that this is a place I should avoid. But it was early on in the film making that I realized that is was a media construction that makes us feel this way, which is doing a lot more harm then we know. So I thought if there could be a positive story that could come out of this, one that speaks for the different hue of this world, then it would be a good thing for society. That in this sense, I could help build bridges and show people on the outside that this place, this neighborhood, is not so different then the one they live in.
Brett is the kind of guy who, right off the bat, strikes you with his openness and kind eyes. He is the kind of guy who you can just innately trust with your story, and this comes across so beautifully in his film. The grit and honesty that comes forth in Fire on the Hill could not have been accomplished otherwise, his earnest passion and determination, for me, shows that he has carved out his own cowboy code—he is a director who listens, is open-handed, and is able to welcomingly immerse himself into a community with empathy and respect.
Fire on the Hill premiered in 2018 and was received with high praises from the film community, wining major awards including the Heartland International Film Festival’s Jimmy Stewart Legacy Award. Keep an eye out for the film premiering on major networks here soon!
Catch up with Brett and the cowboys at: fireonthehill.la
And see more of the good work that Urban Saddles is doing at: urbansaddles.org