The Criterion Shelf: Black Westerns

Bil Antoniou takes a look at nine films that present an all-too familiar genre in a new light.

After decades of being the most popular genre in the movies, westerns appeared to become more thoughtful in the 1950s, the cavalry of consciousness led by John Ford, whose 1939 classic Stagecoach is considered the first oater to receive serious critical attention and legitimize westerns as more than just disposable, escapist entertainment. Ford’s The Searchers is a frequently cited example of a film that suggests that there might be virulent racism at the heart of not only American westerns but America itself. In the film, John Wayne looks for the niece who was abducted by Comanches as a baby; his companions begin to understand that he means not to restore her to her family but to save her from a “fate worse than death”.

The myths that traditional westerns promote is usually of white settlers reaching the promised land and building towns whose peace and prosperity is threatened by the same familiar problematic forces: a selfish villain, usually a corrupt sheriff or a cattle baron out to monopolize the land (and therefore say that colonialism isn’t wrong, bad colonizers are), the morally corrosive presence of a saloon and the hookers-with-hearts-of-gold within them, and the outside attack by faceless, nameless “Indians” who are always out to ruin everything for our deserving heroes (sure they were here first, but did they build anything as wonderful as a saloon?)

As film scholar Mia Mask describes in her essential introduction to the Black Westerns collection on the Criterion Channel, the western is the most quintessentially American genre because it is the one most closely linked to the country’s violent history. Mask points out that the misrepresentations of so white a world goes beyond just a lack of visibility, citing such examples the tales of the Lone Ranger, which have been thought to be inspired by the first African-American U.S. Marshal, Bass Reeves. In 1860, thirty per-cent of Texans were slaves, which meant that many remained as ranchers and farmers after emancipation and should definitely be more present in tales of dusty western towns. Even the word “cowboy” itself has its roots in Black history, it was a derogatory term for African-Americans (“cowhand” was for whites).

Moving into the sixties, the cinema begins to see the effects of the Civil Rights conversations that are setting the country on fire, which when combined with the rise in popularity of Sidney Poitier as a leading man meant that changes would come to the most popular genres, westerns included. The studio wanted Ford to cast Poitier or the almost equally popular Harry Belafonte in Sergeant Rutledge, the story of a Black soldier on trial for rape and murder, but Ford wanted someone tough and intimidating and chose Woody Strode, who that same year triumphed in Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus. Six years later, Ralph Nelson’s Duel at Diablo casts Poitier in a western where the character’s race has nothing to do with the plot or his character and hints, possibly, at an awareness of a history long unknown, that of the African-American presence in the formation of the west (but don’t hold your breath).

As the decade ended, the era of non-violence progressed to the popularity of Black power groups; Martin Luther King, Jr was assassinated and, on screen, Rod Steiger slapped Poitier in (the non-western) In the Heat of the Night and Poitier slapped him right back, what has often been described as a watershed moment in cinematic representation. Westerns began to fade in popularity and were treated with irony (spaghetti westerns being the most popular example), ripe for re-examination in conjunction with the popularity of Blaxploitation cinema (this is a key plot point in Regina King’s One Night in Miami, in which Jim Brown has just recently been cast in Rio Concho). Brown would go on to star in more westerns as would Fred Williamson, selling revenge fantasies as potent as the Cowboys and Indians sagas that had come before them.

Criterion’s Black Westerns collection gives a potent overview of films from the era (and beyond) that are diverse in style, content and attitude, and full of it interesting irony: notice that even those with progressive attitudes about African American characters still fail in their presentation of indigenous characters, and note how many of these are not directed by African Americans.  Some films are earnest appeals to a country to rethink its social structure, others sell revisionist historical fantasies as a way to appeal to audiences fed up with waiting for proper representation. It’s highly recommended that you begin with Mask’s introduction as she puts all of these films in context for those of us who approached the majority of the selections knowing very little about them beforehand.

 

THE MUST-SEE BLACK WESTERNS

 

Sergeant Rutledge (John Ford, 1960)

Woody Strode plays a Buffalo Soldier who is on trial in nineteenth century Arizona for the rape and murder a teenage girl and the murder of her father, who was his commanding officer. The events surrounding the event are told in cleverly constructed flashbacks (complete with gorgeous theatrical lighting) by witnesses who take the stand and tell a tale of nighttime Apache raids on a lone train station, chases across Ford’s beloved Monument Valley and the eventual gathering of evidence that reveals the truth about Strode’s involvement in the case. Well-meaning but dated, the film is shockingly modern in its concern for the contradictions of the American mythology of post-emancipation life for African Americans (as Strode himself points out in the film, the abolition of slavery has not made anyone free), but Ford also isn’t above reducing his indigenous characters to mere fodder for violence. Less surprising (and a factor not limited to its time) is that a film about a Black man seeks to guarantee its mainstream audience by making him a contextual character (with low billing), while the romance between defense lawyer Jeffrey Hunter and Constance Towers is the ultimate goal. Ford contributes some magnificent imagery and even with its rather silly ending, it’s an exciting and thrilling tale.

 

The Learning Tree (Gordon Parks, 1969)

Gordon Parks was the first African American to direct a studio film, in this case an adaptation of his own semi-autobiographical novel. It stretches my definition of western (too much greenery) but it’s a sincere and beautifully performed coming of age tale, about a teenager in 1920s Kansas preparing for adulthood in a town whose Black and white residents co-exist in a quiet tension that threatens to explode at various points of the picaresque narrative. Childhood trouble with friends brings the law into his backyard, an innocent first crush on a girl is ruined by her being seduced by the local rich white boy, and his high school has integrated classrooms but the local cafe won’t let him eat inside. His optimism for making a better world is pitted against his friend Marcus, who believes that the white man will never let him succeed and allows himself to be drawn into darkness. Parks would go on to rule the box office with the success of Shaft, which many credit with bringing blaxploitation to the mainstream.

 

Black Rodeo (Jeff Kanew, 1972)

Well before he directed comedies like Revenge of the Nerds and Tough Guys, Jeff Kanew debuted with this spirited documentary about the arrival of a Black rodeo show in New York City. Audiences who, as the credits clearly state, have only known wild west entertainment as the milieu of white men are delighted to see people who look more like them parading the streets of Harlem to promote the show they will later attend at an outdoor arena. Calf roping, bronc riding and brahma bull riding are the magnificent displays of skill that they witness, then Kanew treats us to the pleasure of having the great Woody Strode describe his own experience as a Black western star (including the making of Sergeant Rutledge) as well as narrating the African American experience of the west that history books rarely tell of (including the exciting outlaws!)  Muhammad Ali caps the experience off in the last act, visiting the show and delighting fans with his humorous swagger and willingness to try anything (including getting on that bull).

 

Buck and the Preacher (Sidney Poitier, 1972)

Sidney Poitier, directing for the first time, co-stars with Harry Belafonte as the title characters, two men doing their best to accompany a wagon train of ex-slaves out west, where they hope to find a new life after learning that the post emancipation promise of 40 acres and a mule was a lie. They piss off a group of bounty hunters who want to take the people back and force them to work the land, then when they take care of those bad guys, even more resentful white men come after them. Great cinematography and wonderful action sequences, plus as Mia Mask points out, the pleasure of seeing Black women on horseback (including a terrific performance by Ruby Dee).

 

THE WORTHY BLACK WESTERNS

 

Duel at Diablo (Ralph Nelson, 1966)

A convoy of soldiers is taking ammunition across Apache territory to an army fort, accompanied by an ex-scout (James Garner) who is looking for the man who killed his Comanche wife and a mercenary (Sidney Poitier) who is overseeing the sale of mustangs to the army. It becomes clear that they are soon going to walk straight into a dangerous battle, which makes up the majority of the climax of this film, which like Sergeant Rutledge has its conflicts for the modern day viewer. That the script never makes reference to Poitier’s skin colour feels so progressive, but the indigenous characters are once again kept at a distance and reduced to being hordes of bloodthirsty savages. It’s an exciting film with a successfully intimate feeling, however, and also features the Hollywood debut of Ingmar Bergman superstar Bibi Andersson as a white woman who has left her husband to raise her half-Apache son.

 

The Legend of Black Charley (Martin Goldman, 1972)

Known under a more provocative title in some outlets, this is a terrific adventure whose popularity later spawned a sequel.  Football star Fred Williamson is magnificent in the lead role as a former slave whose argument over his freedom with a cruel white overseer results in the man’s death, sending our hero and two friends fleeing for their lives as a paid assassin hunts them down to kill them…and that’s just the first half! The second is Williamson and his two loyal friends helping protect a farmer from a cruel villain who is stealing his crops and horning in on his wife (for whom our hero has eyes as well). A lot is accomplished by great acting and strong direction despite an obvious low budget and only a handful of locations.

 

Thomasine and Bushrod (Gordon Parks Jr, 1974)

Director Parks Jr., son of the filmmaker of Shaft and The Learning Tree, creates a Black response to Bonnie and Clyde starring Vonetta McGee and screenwriter and co-producer Max Julien as the title characters. Thomasine gives up her life as a bounty hunter when she reconnects with her ex-lover Bushrod and they cross a gorgeous south west robbing banks and giving money to the poor. Funny and inventive, the film looks anachronistic but plush despite its low budget, and gets a great deal out of the chemistry of its stars.

 

Rosewood (John Singleton, 1997)

Devastating true story of the massacre of a Black community in 1923 Florida, (and as it’s not a tale set on the frontier its inclusion in this collection is up there with The Learning Tree as being iffy). A tale of racism and greed that features a lone gunman who saves the day (Ving Rhames, playing a character based on sketchier testimony from survivors of the events), it’s set in the town of  peaceful and affluent town of Rosewood whose predominantly Black citizens own their land.  Rosewood is near the poor white town of Sumter, and when a white woman (Catherine Kellner) tells everyone that she has been attacked by a Black man to hide the fact that she has been cheating on her husband, it riles up the long-simmering resentments of her fellow townsfolk.  By the end of the weekend, people have been lynched, buildings burned down and a way of life destroyed. Singleton goes for prestige historical epic in his telling but indulges in Rambo-style interference by Rhames that never quite feels right. The performances range from mesmerizing (Esther Rolle) to terrible (Kellner) and it’s much too long, but there’s no denying the importance of the story itself, which is not minimized by the film’s flaws.

 

ONLY FOR THE CURIOUS

 

El Condor (John Guillermin, 1970)

The plot has little to offer in this passable western, but its stars Jim Brown and Lee Van Cleef, typically sideline characters in bigger movies, get to be the leads in this one and enjoy great chemistry. After Brown escapes a chain gang, he teams up with gold thief Van Cleef and convinces him to join him on a big score, the El Condor castle where Emperor Maximilian stores all his gold. They round up an army of Apaches and attack the fortress before the sight of beautiful Marianna Hill sees Brown fighting the castle’s leader (Patrick O’Neal) in hand to hand combat. Some great action sequences, beautiful wide vistas of the Spanish locations, but it all feels far too familiar.

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