Filmmaker Jingjing Tian releases her inner cowboy

From movies to music, artists of color are claiming Western mythology.


With inspiration from Jingjing Tian's personal experiences in her Texas hometown, Cowboy Joe pushes the norms of cowboy culture and who can be a part of it.
Film still courtesty of Jingjing Tian

Cowboy Joe (Conder Shou) dances through the streets of New York to a jazzy rendition of “Only In New York.” The camera sashays just a few feet ahead, capturing Joe as he weaves in and out of pedestrian traffic. He manages high kicks and smooth backwards gliding, even though he’s wearing clunky cowboy boots. Also sporting a bolero and slim-fit Levi’s, Joe appears to be at home in this getup. Only moments before, he’d confronted his disappointed immigrant Chinese father (Lei Zhou) about wanting to pursue his cowboy dreams.

Cowboy culture has long been rooted in settler colonialism and marked by images of white hypermasculinity. In Cowboy Joe, filmmaker Jingjing Tian joins a growing number of artists of color who are taking a whack at dismantling that image in favor of inclusivity. “You can be anyone, anything you want,” says Tian. “You embody that freedom within you.”

Through Joe, Tian introduces us to someone who takes on a problematic ideal, while turning that long-established image on its head. “I love Brokeback Mountain, but it’s about these cowboys and how they fit within their culture—they’re already in that culture, but they have this element that divides them,” says Tian of Ang Lee’s 2005 film about two white cowboys who fall for each other. With Cowboy Joe, she was looking to do something different. Tian says, “I wanted to take this guy who’s never been a part of that culture and ask, how can he enter that culture? Will he be able to do that?” By extension, the film asks if the country is ready to shake up the archetypal white cowboy found in classic Westerns. 

Tian understands Joe’s audacious desire to be a cowboy. “I think part of me has always wanted to be a cowboy, so it’s like wish-fulfillment,” she says about the moody six-minute short film. What separates her from Joe is that she also wanted to be an artist. While Tian’s immigrant Chinese parents allowed her to partake in cowboy activities like going to the rodeo, they weren’t exactly keen on her artistic ambitions. She says her parents had very specific ideas about what was “outlandish” and what was “acceptable” as far as lifepaths went, and artists were definitely “outlandish.” The idea of their daughter becoming an artist was as perplexing to them as Joe’s cowboy dreams were to his father.

At the same time that Tian’s parents grimaced at her self-expression, some members of her larger community marginalized Tian. Even teachers sometimes laughed at her Chinese name. Tian made Cowboy Joe in order to work through the exclusion and othering she dealt with in her Texas hometown. “It hurt a lot, so part of me was like I belong here,” she says. “That’s what I was trying to say.”

Tian grew up in Conroe, Texas, an oil and lumber town of 84,000 people north of Houston. Despite her Chinese upbringing in an environment where she often felt like an outsider, Tian idealized the pastimes of her rural town. She developed an early fascination with the cowboys both in her hometown and onscreen in films like Toy Story or Midnight Cowboy. To her, they personified the American identity that felt out of reach in her own childhood.

In popular culture, the cowboy represents free will, fortitude and thrilling discoveries of so-called uncharted land. When put that way, it’s hard for Tian and moviegovers alike to resist. There’s an inevitable disenchantment, though, that comes with the realization that the mythology of the cowboy is fraught with messy truths: in addition to excluding people of color — and, in the case of Native Americans, erasing them — the myth perpetuates toxic masculinity.

“The (text)book mythology is beautiful, right? But the reality of it was more painful,” says Tian.

Solange Knowles elevates Black cowboy culture in her latest album, "When I Get Home."
When I Get Home via Saint Records / Columbia and Apple Music

Tian doesn’t dismiss the troubling mythology of the cowboy, but she toys with its reinvention to offer more expansive, untold narratives. And judging from a recent resurgence of the cowboy aesthetic, she has a bit of company, such as musician Solange Knowles. If it wasn’t already clear to fans that Solange is a Houston native, her latest album, When I Get Home, makes it crystal. The accompanying short film of the same title serves up stunning visuals of Black cowboys—synchronized circles on horseback, hypnotic lassoing, riding in streetwear—being Black cowboys. “When Solange takes on the cowboy aesthetic,” Tian tells me, “she’s elevating it.”

She adds, “It’s like saying, I’m part of this country, I’m part of this history, and part of this world.”

Cowboy Joe is now available on Video on Demand and will screen at the Queens World Film Festival on Friday, March 29.

Note: This story has been updated to clarify Jingjing Tian's personal history.

Neyat Yohannes is an arts and culture writer based in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in KQED Arts, the East Bay Express, Cleo Film Journal, Chicago Review of Books, Playboy, and Okayafrica, among other publications.  Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

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