Black is back
A brief pause from the Custer thread. Autie’ll be back.
In Season 3, Episode 2 of the TV show Justified, US Marshal Art Mullen talks about the Old West character Bass Reeves and says, “Good luck finding a movie about him!” And indeed, it is largely true that the whole history of African-American characters on the Western frontier has been pretty well ignored by Hollywood, or airbrushed out. The mythological frontier was essentially a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant and male place. When people who did not fall into this category appeared, such as American Indians, they tended to be enemies and/or savages.
Though the classic period Westerns are set in tended to be after Emancipation, and such pictures were rarely set in the South, black slaves did occasionally appear in oaters, often euphemistically referred to as servants and usually of the faithful family retainer kind. An example was Pinkie (Ernest Whitman) in Fox’s Jesse James (1939). In the sequel The Return of Frank James (1940) Pinkie is in danger of being hanged and Frank (Henry Fonda) interrupts his vengeance quest on the Fords to go back and save him. Frank’s protégé/sidekick Clem (Jackie Cooper) is shocked that Frank is abandoning his mission just on account of a “darkie”.
The heroism of ‘Negro’ soldiers was also largely ignored. Between 1870 and ’90 fourteen Congressional Medals of Honor were awarded to black soldiers for bravery in the Indian wars but John Ford’s Sergeant Rutledge (1960) was the first serious attempt to depict African-American soldiers at all.
There had been black people in the so-called race movies, produced from the silent days (the first race-movie Western we know about was 1916) up to and including the 1940s. These low-budget independent films were shown in big-city ghetto theaters in the North and segregated black-only venues in the South. Many of them were gangster movies and Westerns. Many featured the same eye-rolling stereotype Negro characters that occasionally appeared in mainstream ’white’ movies, and when a spotless, heroic singing cowboy appeared, with a big white hat and white horse, a sort of black Gene Autry, in the shape of Herb Jeffries (aka Herb Jeffrey), the Bronze Buckaroo, he was the classic lighter-skinned African-American (actually, his mother was Irish) who would win a fair lighter-complexioned maid, and the heavies he fought against and the comic-reliefs were darker. Jeffries died quite recently, aged 100.
After Sergeant Rutledge, 1960s Westerns, in a different political climate, did begin to feature black men, often positively. In Major Dundee (1965) Aesop (Brock Peters) does actually have quite an important part and racial tension is addressed in the script. Rutledge actor Woody Strode was one of The Professionals in 1966.
And another of the Professionals, Burt Lancaster, made The Scalphunters in 1968 in which he was the dumb white guy outclassed intellectually by Joseph Lee (Ossie Davis).
Football star Jim Brown made a couple of Westerns, such as Rio Conchos in 1964, and in 1969 was elevated to starring role in 100 Rifles.
The 70s were years of so-called blaxploitation movies, some of which touched on serious social and political issues, and there were Westerns in this style too, though they were often pretty bad and not always admired by black rights leaders and other commentators. Many were formulaic and unchallenging, and they often used titles that would not be acceptable today, such as The Legend of Nigger Charley (1962), starring another black football player, Fred Williamson, or Boss Nigger (1974), which Williamson also wrote. These pictures seemed to hark back to the old race movies.
Mainstream Westerns with an African-American agenda received a boost from Buck and the Preacher in 1971, with big stars Sidney Poitier (whose directorial debut it was) and Harry Belafonte, and this picture dealt interestingly with a theme that had been largely ignored by the Western, namely the migration of former black slaves to the West and how they fared there.
el Brooks’s hugely entertaining comedy Western Blazing Saddles (1974) headlined Cleavon Little as Bart and it was full of racial jokes, some quite near the bone. It dallied dangerously with the theme of racism but got away with it by reducing it to utter absurdity. But it was probably the last time the n- word would be used so profusely in a mainstream Western.
By the 1980s and 90s black people featured often in mainstream Westerns without arousing comment. Sometimes, such as in Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992), brutal racist violence is shown, such as when the sadistic lawman (Gene Hackman) whips Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) to death.
There was the occasional hark-back to the specifically ‘black’ Western, such as Mario Van Peebles’s Posse (1993). These days of course we don’t bat an eyelid if Denzel Washington leads the Magnificent Seven, and nor, it seems, do the other six.
Bass Reeves, mentioned by Art, was born a slave in Arkansas in 1838. He fled to Indian Territory during the Civil War and lived with Cherokee, Seminole and Creek Indians, whose languages he learned. In 1875, Judge Isaac Parker appointed James F Fagan as US marshal and told him to hire 200 deputy marshals. In fiction, among these were Clint Eastwood in Hang ‘em High and John Wayne/Jeff Bridges in the True Grits. In fact, one of the 200 was Bass Reeves, who worked Indian Territory as a deputy US marshal for thirty-two years. When he retired in 1907, he claimed to have brought in 3000 felons, among them some of the worst criminals of the time. Once he had to arrest his own son. He was never wounded in all that time, though he had his hat and belt shot off on different occasions. He died of Bright’s disease in 1910.
Someone in the movie business must have been listening to Art because in 2010, the same year as Justified first screened, the film Bass Reeves came out, made by Ponderosa Productions of San Antonio. Art in Justified says that “Somebody needs to tell Denzel that story” and Morgan Freeman also expressed an interest but in fact in the end Bass was played by James A House. The 2019 action movie Hell on the Border, starring David Gyasi, was based on Reeves’s early law enforcement career and In They Die by Dawn (2013), Reeves is portrayed by Harry Lennix.
Bass has also appeared in a couple of TV shows, such as Gunslingers and Wynonna Earp, and some say Denzel’s character of Sam Chisolm in the remake of The Magnificent Seven (2016) was based on Bass, though that seems a bit of a stretch to me.
I’m talking about Bass here because I have just seen another movie he appears in, The Harder They Fall, currently available on Netflix. The gimmick of the movie, if you want to call it that, is that it regroups a bunch of real black Old West characters (along with some fictional ones). It isn’t a true story – very far from it – but at least it throws a spotlight on some of the figures that have been for years unjustly ignored by mainstream movie makers. Including Bass Reeves.
In Texas, although the Mexican government had banned slavery, white American settlers brought slaves with them as they established cotton plantations and cattle ranches. By 1825, slaves accounted for nearly 25 percent of the Texas settler population, and by 1860, fifteen years after it became part of the Union, that number had risen to over 30 percent—that year’s census reported 182,566 slaves living in Texas.
While Texas ranchers fought in the Civil War, they often left these slaves to maintain their land and cattle herds. The slaves thus developed skills that would make them invaluable to the Texas cattle industry after the war. With Emancipation, they had to be hired and paid to do that work. According to William Loren Katz, a scholar of African-American history and the author of 40 books on the topic, including The Black West, “Right after the Civil War, being a cowboy was one of the few jobs open to men of color who wanted to not serve as elevator operators or delivery boys or other similar occupations.”
The character of Deets in Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove is one of the few who made it into Western fiction (on the page and then on the screen, played by Danny Glover). Deets is an ex-slave turned cowboy who serves as a scout on the Texas-to-Montana cattle drive. His character was inspired by real-life Bose Ikard, a cowboy who worked on the Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving cattle drive in the late-19th century. The real-life Goodnight’s fondness for Ikard is clear in his epitaph for the hand: “Served with me four years on the Goodnight-Loving Trail, never shirked a duty or disobeyed an order, rode with me in many stampedes, participated in three engagements with Comanches. Splendid behavior.” McMurtry has Call say this of Deets.
Although cattle drives died out with the coming of the railroads, the skills lived on in rodeo. Bill Pickett, born in 1870 in Texas to former slaves, became one of the most famous early stars of the arena. Using his observations of how ranch dogs caught wandering cattle, Pickett controlled a steer by biting the cow’s lip, subduing it. He performed his trick, called bulldogging, for audiences around the world with the Miller Brothers’ 101 Wild Ranch Show. “He drew applause and admiration from young and old, cowboy to city slicker,” remarks Katz. Pickett also appeared in a couple of silent race-movie Westerns in the 1920s. In 1972, 40 years after his death, Pickett became the first black honoree in the National Rodeo Hall of fame, and rodeo athletes still compete in a version of his event today.
Nat Love was another ex-slave turned cowboy, who had a special way with horses. “I roped, threw, tied, bridled, saddled and mounted my mustang in exactly nine minutes from the crack of the gun,” he recalled. “My record has never been beaten.” He also taught himself to become an expert marksman, for which he earned from his co-workers the moniker ‘Red River Dick’. He met Pat Garrett, Billy the Kid, Bat Masterson and others. At the 4th of July rodeo in Deadwood, Dakota Territory in 1876, he won the rope, throw, tie, bridle, saddle, and bronco riding contests. It was here that Red River Dick gave way to the nickname Deadwood Dick, a reference to the character in the popular dime novels of the day by Edward Lytton Wheeler. Nat gave up the cowboy life, though. In 1889 he married and settled down, initially in Denver, taking a job in 1890 as a Pullman porter. We know so much about him because in 1907 he published an autobiography, Life and Adventures of Nat Love, Better Known in the Cattle Country as ‘Deadwood Dick,’ by Himself. It was an extraordinary life.
Jim Beckwourth was different. He lived earlier (c 1798 to 1866 or ’67) and was a mountain man, trapper and explorer. He dictated his life story to a certain Thomas Bonner, a temperance speaker and journalist, who published The Life and Adventures of James P Beckwourth: Mountaineer, Scout and Pioneer, and Chief of the Crow Nation of Indians in 1856. It was said of James that “some men are rarely worthy of belief, but that Jim was always Beckwourthy of un-belief”. One story had it that Beckwourth was of Crow birth and had been stolen as a baby by raiding Cheyenne and sold to whites. This was widely believed, as Jim wore Indian clothes and was taken by some people as an Indian. Nat Love too, in his later autobio, wasn’t exactly reticent or modest and you do suspect that his account wasn’t always scrupulously factual. Let’s be generous and believe them. There have been a couple of novels based on Beckwourth’s life, Follow the Free Wind by Leigh Brackett in 1963 and Bloody Hand by Matt Braun, 1996.
Then we have Rufus Buck. Now Buck led a gang of ne’er-do-wells later in the Wild West. Their crime spree took place in the Indian Territory between the land rush and Oklahoma becoming a state. They were active especially in the summer of 1895. They were a pretty unsavory lot, and were guilty of murder, rape and robbery. They were finally brought before the famous Judge Isaac Parker and were hanged on July 1, 1896. From the picture it looks as though they were hardly more than children but they were old enough to do serious harm to a good many people. I wonder if Buck ever met Cherokee Bill. They both came up before the judge the same year anyway.
Crawford Goldsby (1876 – 1896), known as Cherokee Bill, was of mixed African-American and American Indian parentage (his father was a buffalo soldier and his mother was a Cherokee, herself of mixed heritage). Aged 18, he shot a certain Jake Lewis in a Fort Gibson saloon and went on the run into Indian Territory, where he met up with outlaws Jim and Bill Cook. According to the Wikipedia entry, “The gang quickly began robbing banks, stagecoaches, and stores, and were willing to shoot anyone who got in their way.” Goldsby suffered from alopecia and was usually seen bald. He was captured and after a failed jailbreak, in which he shot a guard in the stomach and the back, he too was sentenced by Judge Parker and was hanged on March 17, 1896. Pat Hogan played him in a Stories of the Century episode in which he was, naturally, tracked down by Matt Davis, railroad detective extraordinaire.
In the movie they also have Stagecoach Mary (played by Zazie Beetz) as one of the rootin’-tootin’ types, which is a bit odd because Mary Fields (c 1832 – 1914) was an admired and law abidin’ person, the first African-American female star-route mail carrier in the United States. She was a respected public figure in Montana, and her town of Cascade closed its schools to celebrate her birthday each year. When she died, her funeral was the largest the place had ever seen.
Reeves, Pickett, Love, Beckwourth, Buck, Cherokee Bill and Stagecoach Mary (but not Bose Ikard) all appear in The Harder They Fall. Of course on the scale of probabilities of their all being together at one place and one time and knowing each other and having a joint adventure this would be situated somewhere between an airborne pig and a still-frozen snowball in hell. Matt Zoller Seitz on rogerebert.com said that the events in the story were “so ludicrous that they might as well have been taking place on another planet, or in an alternate dimension”. But I don’t think we are supposed to take the story as hard fact, e-pards. It’s just a tale.
The casting director and make-up bods did a reasonably good job, I suppose. Some of the actors do look a bit like their avatars. Not Rufus Buck. Idris Elba played him. Is it me or has Mr Elba put on a pound or two? Born in 1972 and 6 foot 2, Idris doesn’t quite make it as the homicidal stripling Buck. I think Idris is a classy actor but I fear this movie isn’t exactly Oscarable material.
It was directed, produced and written by Jeymes Samuel, who also did the music, so there aren’t many other people to praise or blame, really. The IMDb bio tells us that “Jeymes Samuel, also known as The Bullitts, is an English writer, director, singer-songwriter and music producer from London.” Probably where he met Idris.
The movie blurb says “While the specific story being told in Jeymes Samuel’s movie doesn’t necessarily come from a corresponding historic event, the experiences of The Harder They Fall’s characters are inspired by real occurrences and the lives of Black cowboys and outlaws in the Old West.” Hmm. Not quite sure about the value of that necessarily, or the validity of the phrase real occurrences in this context, but we’ll let that pass.
I say Mr Samuel was in charge of the music. That’s one of the problems with the picture, in fact, for the soundtrack, much devoted to rap-lite and pseudo-reggae, is heavy handed and intrusive, and there are way too many songs. Still, I suppose some folk like it and are doubtless rushing to download the album. They’re welcome.
Delroy Lindo, whom I sure you recognize, especially if you have seen Malcolm X or Get Shorty, is Bass Reeves. Nat Love is played by Jonathan Majors and Bill Pickett by Edi Gathegi. RJ Cyler is Jim Beckwourth and as far as appearance goes I would probably have cast him as Nat Love. LaKeith Stanfield, a Californian rapper, plays Cherokee Bill, who’s supposed to be the fastest gun in the West or something.
There are other characters, including, naturally these days, strong women who stand no nonsense from mere men, notably saloon keeper Trudy Smith, known as Treacherous Trudy (Regina King).
There’s also the odd casting of Danielle Deadwyler as the young man Cuffee. Though she does her best, she is clearly not a male, but maybe these days they are deliberately gender-bending, I don’t know. Or going for a Calamity Jane vibe.
The language is pretty salty and there’s much casual killing and gratuitous blood-letting. It’s not a genteel picture and your aunt may not like it.
Some of the locations (New Mexico) are nice and there’s some good photography, so that’s something.
But in all honesty, it’s not a very good film. It’s too long, at 2 hours 10 minutes. Seitz said, “the filmmaker goes for an operatic dream/nightmare feeling, creating (like Leone before him) a parallel, alternative version of the American West in which pistol shots reverberate like cannon fire, and gunfights become so acrobatic as to seem like an extension of martial arts.” OK, if that’s your thing. It ain’t mine. And for me, the comparison with Leone is the kiss of death.
Still, it’s good to see a few of the forgotten characters in a Western.