A Star is Born
An Appreciation of Clifton Collins Jr.
In one of his earliest screen roles, Clifton Collins Jr. (then Clifton Gonzalez Gonzalez) played Vato #2 in The Hughes Brothers’ Menace II Society (1993). Like so many young American actors of color in Hollywood, Collins started out playing bit parts with no official names, more archetype (or stereotype) than character, the sinister background fodder. It wasn’t until the “high school is prison” crime film 187 (1997) that Collins was given the space and screen time to show his singular combination of wormy unpredictability and dangerous magnetism.
Ever since the late 1990s, Collins Jr. has been one of the great American character actors, consistently stealing scenes from the biggest stars. He’s popped up in a diverse cross-section of genre films over the years, everything from serious masculine fare like Tigerland (2000) and Dirty (2005) to the darkly comic Sunshine Cleaning (2009). My favorite recent performance is his corrupt, brutal cop in John Hillcoat’s underrated Triple 9 (2016). But despite the consistent workload, starring roles have eluded Collins Jr.
That is until now. With the horse-racing drama Jockey (2021), Collins Jr. has finally received a worthy headlining turn that showcases how far he’s come as a performer. Gone is the volatile intensity that defined his earliest supporting work. It’s been replaced by a deep sense of anguish and regret that fits the character of Jackson, an aging jockey working and living on the backside of a Phoenix track who meets a young upstart (the great Moisés Arias) that may be his estranged son. While the film often bends to the pressure of narrative predictability and human conflict, Collins Jr. manages a delicate balancing act, rooting the character’s flaws, charms, and regrets in a mostly restrained performance.
Jackson’s reputation as a hardworking and successful jockey has come at great cost to his physical and mental wellbeing. During one sequence, he joins a group session between some fellow riders (played by real professional jockeys like Martin Bourdieu and Ryan Barber). They each share stories about horrific injuries, recovery times, and the lack of support they are provided by the trainers and owners who claim the bulk of prize-winnings.
Collins Jr. inhabits this space as an equal, rooting Jackson in the same pain and trauma that comes with spending decades in such a taxing industry. Having worked for nearly 10 years as a Mutual Manager at the Del Mar Racetrack here in San Diego, I instantly recognized these characters and the stakes of their experience, their loyalty to each other, their heartbreak at having to eventually say goodbye to a sport that nearly kills them every time out.
Collins Jr. internalizes all of this subtext and you can feel the weight becoming too much to bear. This is a character who’s entire professional life has been defined by a linear direction forward, but now it’s become impossible not to acknowledge life’s swerves and curves.
Jockey might not be a very good movie, but I’m glad it exists if only because it’s given Collins Jr. (and Arias) a wider platform to show their excellence. For the former, it’s the kind of sobering role that didn’t exist when he was Arias’ age. I hope more filmmakers see the same star qualities in Collins Jr. that Bentley did, because honestly, they were there from the start.
Stay safe and thank you for reading. - GHJ