Is it possible to love someone who died before you were born? Cheryl Foggo believes so. John Ware Reclaimed follows filmmaker Foggo on her quest to uncover the complex story of John Ware, a Black cowboy and rancher who settled in Alberta prior to the turn of the 20th century. As she endeavours to dig past the racist myths and mistellings surrounding Ware, she recalls her childhood in Calgary, Alberta, her own experiences of racism, and her family’s history as part of the 1910 migration to western Canada to escape violence in the southern United States. She also evokes the suppressed history of a thriving Black presence in the Prairies: the Black pioneers who lived, worked, and raised families in the west. Foggo’s archival, genealogical, and archaeological search, and her creative reimagining of John Ware’s life, reveal who this iconic figure might have been, and what his legacy means.
Is it possible to love someone who died before you were born? Cheryl Foggo believes so. John Ware Reclaimed follows author, playwright, and filmmaker Foggo on her quest to uncover the rich and complex story of John Ware, the iconic and larger-than-life Black cowboy who settled in Alberta prior to the turn of the 20th century. As she researches the many truths of Ware’s life amid the superficial myths and mistellings surrounding him, she recalls her childhood in Calgary, Alberta. She revisits her own experiences of racism, and her family’s pioneer history as part of the 1910 migration to western Canada to escape violence in the southern United States. She also evokes the often-suppressed history of a thriving Black presence in the Canadian west: the Black cowboys, ranchers, labourers, and farmers who lived, worked, and raised families here, including earlier generations of her own family in northern Saskatchewan and Alberta. Part ode, part eulogy, part mystery, with views of sweeping prairie landscapes and music inspired by John Ware, the film reveals Ware to be a rounded and sometimes enigmatic man, and reaffirms him as a major figure in Albertan—and Canadian—history. Foggo’s archival, genealogical, and archaeological research, and her creative reimagining of John Ware’s life and family, show who he might have been, how he might have lived, and what his legacy means for a version of Canada that often denies its history of anti-Black racism.
Filmmaker Cheryl Foggo re-examines the story of John Ware, the Black cowboy who settled in Alberta, Canada, prior to the turn of the 20th century.
John Ware Reclaimed follows filmmaker Cheryl Foggo on her quest to re-examine the mythology surrounding John Ware, the Black cowboy who settled in Alberta, Canada, before the turn of the 20th century. Foggo’s research uncovers who this iconic figure might have been, and what his legacy means in terms of anti-Black racism, both past and present.
1. Can you tell us a little more about the music and the monologues that are included in the film?
The monologues are all taken directly from the words of people who knew John Ware in his lifetime. They are quotes from letters, newspaper articles, memoirs or interviews. I’m really glad you asked this question because some of my “preview screeners” have assumed those monologues are excerpts from my 2014/2017 play John Ware Reimagined, so it’s nice to have the opportunity to clear up that misconception.
The performers delivering those monologues are individuals who have been connected in some way to my exploration of Canada’s Black history or John Ware’s story specifically. And in almost every case, the anecdotes were filmed in the location where the action described in the monologue took place. Actor Janelle Cooper is sitting on the porch of the house John and Mildred Lewis were married in when she shares the wedding announcement from a Calgary newspaper. Author Lawrence Hill shares his anecdote in a present-day downtown Calgary restaurant that now sits on the site of the 1880s-era hotel where the incident took place.
Similarly, the music links to my John Ware journey, or to the bond I feel to his life with Mildred and their family, their friends and their neighbours. The music also acts in partnership with the film’s narrative. For example, the segment of the film that tells the story of John and Mildred’s meeting, marriage and family life is underscored by the song “Open Door” that singer-songwriter Miranda Martini (who is my daughter) wrote for the film. There is also music filmed on location near the two sites where John Ware’s ranches were situated. Western singer-songwriter Corb Lund performs two original songs that I feel capture aspects of my life that I share with John Ware. Every song has a specific connection, and each live performer has a specific connection. Corb grew up near John Ware’s Duchess ranch and his great grandfather knew John Ware.
The composer of the score, Alec Harrison, has done an amazing job of pulling together the many different musical styles and elements in the film and weaving them through the background.
2. Watching the film, there’s a real sense that even though John Ware’s children didn’t go on to have children of their own, in a way you are a descendant of John Ware. Can you talk about this?
I certainly feel like he is an ancestor. My daughters feel that way too. I don’t want to be presumptuous, but I hope the Wares and Lewises would have approved. I hold them all in my heart and they occupy a lot of space in my head, just as my blood ancestors do.
3. Can you talk about the other Black cowboys and ranchers in the Prairies at the time?
Doing historical research about African-American and African-Canadian subjects is challenging because of the lack of attention paid to our stories and the records of those histories in the past. Add to that the additional challenge created because cowboys were transient by nature. Nevertheless, I know there were other Black cowboys around and other Black people in John Ware’s life because of mentions made of them in newspapers, memoirs and the writings of early historians who did take an interest. One day, I would like to devote some time to researching and sharing their stories.
4. You’ve made this film about John Ware, but you also wrote a play about him that was staged and received much acclaim. How does your art help in your journey to reclaim and reimagine John Ware?
There is a relationship between the preservation of history and art. It’s the story embedded in the history that we care about. When caring about the story of someone who lived before our time leads to a connection with that history, it helps us understand the links between the past, the present and the future. In the case of John Ware, I can’t begin to tell you the joy I found in imagining a world that was not fixed in time, where he and I could meet, as I did with the play! It was through that creative process that I was able to allow myself to think of his story as one that I could claim.
The NATIONAL FILM BOARD OF CANADA Presents
JOHN WARE RECLAIMED
DIRECTOR OF PHOTOGRAPHY
ORIGINAL SONGS COMPOSED BY
Miranda Martini and Corb Lund
ORIGINAL SCORE COMPOSED BY
© 2020 NATIONAL FILM BOARD OF CANADA. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED