Finding John Ware: Documentary separates the man from the myth

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Separating Ware the man from Ware the myth has been a passion for Foggo for more than a decade. But her interest goes back much further. She has been smitten ever since her teenaged brother, Richard, saw a picture of John Ware at the Glenbow Museum in the late 1960s. He raced home to tell his sister about a strapping Black cowboy who had been one of the first ranchers in Alberta in the late 19th century. In 2012, Foggo wrote the play John Ware Reimagined to help celebrate the Calgary Stampede’s 100th anniversary. In 2017, she began shooting the National Film Board documentary John Ware Reclaimed, which screens as part of the Calgary International Film Festival beginning Thursday.

As the title suggests, the film chronicles Foggo’s attempts to reclaim John Ware as an important historical figure for Black Canadians. Her investigation involves interviewing historians, experts and friends of Ware’s descendants, combing through paperwork and artifacts, instigating an archeological dig and even hiring a professional researcher to find a paper trail that might shine a light on Ware’s origins and life before arriving in Southern Alberta in 1882.

Cheryl Foggo and Fred Whitfield as John Ware in her documentary, John Ware Reclaimed. Courtesy, Shaun Robinson, National Film Board of Canada.
Cheryl Foggo and Fred Whitfield as John Ware in her documentary, John Ware Reclaimed. Courtesy, Shaun Robinson, National Film Board of Canada. jpg

Through it all, Foggo is determined to find John Ware the man as opposed to the “mythical creature”, and prove that he is “more than a prop in a happy story my country likes to tell itself about itself.”

Throughout the film, Foggo returns to the idea that the recorded “history” of John Ware is thin, rife with extrapolation and speculation and, in some cases, may simply be wrong. Most of what is accepted about Ware comes from a single source: Historian Grant MacEwan’s 1960 book John Ware’s Cow Country. Ware’s legacy, Foggo argues, is trapped inside the mythology that MacEwan created. When looked at through a modern lens, the book’s account of Ware’s life can be troubling. As author, poet and professor Bertrand Bickersteth, who specializes in Western Canadian Black history, tells Foggo in the film, MacEwan goes “back to the same old tropes, the same old derogatory representations of . . . male Blackness that are not helpful.”


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