A New Doc Shows How Oakland's Black Cowboys Keep History Alive

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Wilbert McAlister, president of the Oakland Black Cowboy Association, at Eli's Mile High Club on set for the documentary 'Cowboy.' (Jon W. Harrison)

One of the best parts of living in the Bay Area are the people who find magic in their passions and devote themselves to sharing it with others. Wilbert "Cowboy" Freeman McAlister, the longtime president of the Oakland Black Cowboy Association, certainly fits that description. He's led the group of urban equestrians for 18 years, and through their community service and annual parade, they've kept the Black history of the West alive for nearly five decades.

A new, short documentary by director James Manson, Cowboy, paints a personal portrait of McAlister and allows us to get to know the how and why of his unique subculture. Beyond visual opulence of the horses, boots and belts, there's plenty of wisdom to be shared about how Black cowboys bring generations of Oaklanders together and promote an appreciation and understanding of history.

The documentary premieres at Eli's Mile High Club on Saturday, Oct. 2. In fact, many of the interview scenes were shot in the historic Oakland venue, which emerged as a bastion of the local blues scene in the 1970s and eventually became an eclectic hub for all sorts of genres, notably punk and metal. Eli's talent buyer John Gamiño composed the Cowboy soundtrack, which adds a sentimental quality to its poetic visuals through an ambient, electronic score.

McAlister himself performs regularly at Eli's Monday blues night as Cowboy & His Sometimes Blues Band. The group will play at Saturday's film screening and Q&A, which also doubles as a fundraiser for the Oakland Black Cowboy Association. The cowboys canceled their annual parade for 2020 and 2021 because of COVID, but plan to return to DeFremery Park in October 2022.

Tickets and additional details can be found on Eventbrite. The documentary will be available for streaming at a later date.

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