Rob Morgan has been steadily amassing a gorgeous body of work that puts the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to shame for not yet nominating him for an Oscar. Not for Mudbound, nor The Last Black Man in San Francisco, nor Just Mercy, all of which featured Morgan in supporting roles that are mesmerizing and unforgettable. As the lead in Annie Silverstein’s Bull, Morgan reiterates what he’s capable of, delivering a captivating performance of a man aging out of his dream and realizing, not for the first or the last time, that maybe his passion isn’t enough.
Set outside Houston, Bull (directed by Silverstein, and co-written by her and Johnny McAllister) begins not with Morgan’s character, but with 14-year-old Kris (Amber Havard), a young woman on her way to becoming a problem. Her pitbull Reign barks constantly and kills animals in the neighborhood. Kris’s younger sister Chance (Keira Bennett) is starved for attention, but Kris doesn’t spend much time with her. The girls’ grandmother Marjorie (Keeli Wheeler) is taking care of them while their mother Janis (Sara Allbright) is in prison, and Kris chafes against her authority. She’s a quiet teenager, more prone to observation than action, and more prone to rejecting responsibility than assuming it.
Is Kris an asshole? She certainly does some asshole-ish things! Yes, she is inspired by her mother, who isn’t the best role model; when Marjorie complains during a visit that Kris is fighting at school, Janis doesn’t see a problem: “Sometimes you just gotta show you’re crazy.” But when Kris breaks into the house at the end of the block, the one where Abe (Morgan) lives, no one makes her take a picture of the liquor cabinet and text it to the shitty neighborhood kids she’s trying to impress. No one forces her to invite them over. No one compels her to let these fellow teens, who drop the n-word in reference to Abe and happily take his painkillers and drink all of his alcohol, trash his house. She does all that on her own!
What Kris doesn’t know is that Abe, a bullfighter for PBR (the highest-tier international bull-riding association) needs those painkillers to help his heal body after each rodeo. Abe straps on his pads, dons his personalized jersey, puts on face paint, and steps into the ring each night; whenever a rider is bucked off, Abe’s job is to launch himself forward and divert the bull’s attention so the rider can get away. He’s been doing it for decades, and he’s great at it, signing autographs and holding babies. Kris might not know who Abe Turner is, but plenty of other people do. And when he finds her still sleeping at his house after its destruction, he works out a deal with the police: Kris will clean his house, do his chores, run whatever errands he wants, and generally be his assistant instead of going to juvie.
This setup of “wild child forced to spend time with older wise person” is familiar—we’ve seen it from To Kill a Mockingbird to The Simpsons—and I understand how you might fear that Bull becomes another “troubled white person saved by the influence of a POC” narrative. But Bull is able to sidestep that cliched outcome, for the most part, because of how much time it spends with Morgan’s Abe, and how much time it spends in the ring. Like The Wrestler or The Rider or even Lean on Pete, Bull is interested in the toll a sport takes on your body, on the ways we build up our tolerance for that pain, and on the limits of how much we can take. Abe walks chest-forward, but with a limp; he can run across the ring when he needs to and a scale a fence to get away from a bull, but it takes a little while to get back down. He’s part of a black community of former riders and fighters, and helps train the next generation. Their events are far different from the glitz, glamour, and nearly all-white crowds of the PBR, and Silverstein and McAllister work in unfussy moments that acknowledge the racism Abe faces on a daily basis in Texas. From bratty teenagers like Kris and her friends. From the police officer who, with a look, makes clear her skepticism about whether Abe really wants to file a report against Kris. From Abe’s fellow bullfighters, who might not have his back against management. Abe is the recipient of all that, but he refuses to let his passion for the sport diminish. When Kris discovers his history as a famous competitor, and it helps spark her own interest in the sport, Abe is encouraging, but wary. How serious is Kris really going to be? When is her priority going to be herself?
For her part, Havard does a good job making Kris sympathetic, given that the character makes so many choices that are obviously born out of loneliness and a need for love, but that are also infuriating. When she asks the police officer who takes her back to Abe’s trashed house, “Can’t you just take me to juvie?” you understand it’s because she wants to feel closer to Janis. When she crushes on Daryl (Reece McClure), one of the kids who laughed at calling Abe the n-word, you can maybe understand that in this small town, he’s the cool kid, even though he sucks. When local drug dealer Billy (Steven Boyd) teases Kris with the prospect of making enough money to help Janis when she gets out of prison, you understand how she could get roped into selling for him. But Bull tip-toes right up to making Kris almost irredeemable, and the rhythm of her character development when she’s outside of Abe’s influence is sometimes too rapid. The film has a strong understanding of who Abe is, and who Kris is when she’s with him, but sometimes mistakes the teen’s miserable circumstances for forward movement.
Nevertheless, Bull works quite well because the film builds up the motivations for Kris’s choices, frustrating as they are, and because of how deeply you’ll feel for Abe, and for the lived-in world the film builds around him. “Reparations have begun!” one of his friends laughs when Abe brings Kris around to fetch water for riders in training. When an ex-lover tells Abe to leave the rodeo, saying “There’s other ways to make money,” the very determined but slightly regretful way Morgan replies “Not for me” is shattering. The first really broad, genuine smiles we see on either Abe—usually so taciturn—and Kris—usually so reserved—are shared with each other, the first time Kris makes it on a bull. Bull doesn’t ignore the danger of this sport, or the economic hardship facing Kris and Abe both, but its primary interest is individual intentionality, and how we react to what is outside of our control. How Bull finds connection between people living in the margins, united by a desire to survive day to day and maybe, quite possibly, find some sort of shared purpose, is successful thanks primarily to Morgan, whose work here deserves the notice he should have had his entire career.
Bull became available for VOD and digital rental on May 1, 2020.
Image sources (in order of posting): Samuel Goldwyn Films, Samuel Goldwyn Films, Samuel Goldwyn Films