Historians estimate that one in four cowboys was African American, though you’d never guess by looking at westerns. Are they finally about to get the Hollywood treatment?
Wed 11 Mar 2020
[Crying out to be centre-stage ... Denzel Washington in The Magnificent Seven (2016). Photograph: Allstar/Columbia Pictures]
In Hell on the Border, a B-movie western set in Arkansas, Bass Reeves saves the life of a judge, tracks down a dangerous outlaw, and is appointed deputy US marshal. So far, so familiar. What makes this interesting is that Reeves (1838-1910) was not just a real historical character, but the first black deputy west of the Mississippi River.
And the film doesn’t tell the half of it. Reeves was a runaway slave who sought refuge in Native American territories, where he learned the Cherokee, Creek and Seminole languages. Later, as a marshal, he would sometimes wear disguises to sneak up on the white bandits who operated with impunity in the otherwise lawless region; this was when he wasn’t chasing them long-distance on horseback, using Native American tricks to keep his mounts fresher than those of the men he was pursuing. At his retirement in 1909, he claimed to have arrested more than 3,000 felons, never sustaining serious injury despite close calls in which his hat and belt were shot off.
It’s a career that is crying out for the Hollywood treatment, the way the lives of Wyatt Earp, Wild Bill Hickok or Billy the Kid have been enshrined in American mythology via a multitude of films. But despite a committed performance by London-born David Gyasi in the central role, Hell on the Border is more of a well-meaning sidebar than a satisfying cinematic experience. It’s a label that could equally be applied to the handful of other westerns featuring Reeves, or other gallant but flawed attempts to put black cowboys centre-stage, such as Mario Van Peebles’ Posse (1993) and the TV film Buffalo Soldiers (1997).
[The first black deputy west of the Mississippi River ... David Gyasi, left, as Bass Reeves and Ron Perlman in Hell on the Border (2019). Photograph: Lionsgate UK]
After the American civil war, a life in the saddle offered unprecedented freedom to former slaves, while the teamwork required for cattle drives provided a measure of equality on the trail. When cattle drives were phased out by the use of the railroad, black cowboys, as well as white ones, found employment in travelling rodeos and wild west shows. In the old west, one in four cowboys was black, but you’d never guess it to look at Hollywood westerns. While the anti-woke brigade is quick to froth at the mouth when David Oyelowo is cast as Javert in Les Misérables, Zendaya as Mary Jane Watson in Spider-Man or Dev Patel as David Copperfield, those same cries of “Stop all the tampering with truth, history and literature!” have been strangely silent about the way that, for the past century, Hollywood has already been practising a form of “colour-blind casting” by reassigning the exploits of black characters to white ones, and reframing the history of the wild west as an illustration of “manifest destiny”, a white triumphalist agenda from which non-white people have been erased.
According to historian Art T Burton, Reeves was the inspiration for The Lone Ranger, but that’s not the only instance of black history being whitewashed by popular culture. Alan Le May’s novel The Searchers was reportedly inspired by African American cowboy Britt Johnson, who tracked down his wife and daughters after they were kidnapped by Comanches. John Ford’s 1956 film of the same name starred John Wayne as the protagonist. Everyone knows The Searchers; few have seen Black Fox, a pretty good 1995 TV movie in which Johnson is played by Tony Todd. Intrepid trailblazing ex-slave Nat Love, author of a flamboyant autobiography, was one of a number of historical figures claiming to have been the inspiration for Deadwood Dick – inevitably played by white actors in a series of silent shorts and a 1940 feature. Celebrated black bulldogger Bill Pickett invented the technique (now banned) of wrestling cattle to the ground by biting the cow’s lip, but it was his one-time colleagues Tom Mix and the part-Cherokee Will Rogers who went on to find fame in early westerns.
[Equal billing ... from left, Danny Glover, Kevin Costner, Scott Glenn and Kevin Kline in Silverado (1985). Photograph: Everett/Rex Shutterstock]
Bose Ikard, an ex-slave who became a cattle drive pioneer alongside Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving, was allegedly the model for the character of Joshua Deets in Larry McMurtry’s novel Lonesome Dove. In the excellent 1989 TV adaptation, he was played by Danny Glover, but relegated to second fiddle to top-billed Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones. Glover had been more of an equal partner to Scott Glenn, Kevin Kline and Kevin Costner in Lawrence Kasdan’s enjoyable 1985 pastiche western Silverado.
And so it goes: black western history repeatedly erased, or, at best, marginalised. But black cowboys weren’t entirely absent from Hollywood in the 1930s. Among the era’s “race movies” – films with all-black casts aimed at segregated audiences – were westerns starring Herb Jeffries (1913-2014), known as The Sepia Singing Cowboy or The Bronze Buckaroo. Jeffries was born Umberto Alexander Valentino to an Irish mother and a father of mixed Sicilian-French-Italian-Moorish roots, sang with the Earl Hines and Duke Ellington Orchestras, and later married legendary burlesque artist Tempest Storm. To play the black cowboy hero of films such as Harlem on the Prairie (1937), the first “all-coloured” western musical, he had to darken his skin with makeup, but he identified himself as African American. “We had nobody representing us, least of all in the cowboy pictures,” Jeffries told the Los Angeles Times in 2003. “All we had was Stepin Fetchit. I felt that we could do better, that we could provide heroes for youngsters.”
[Played for laughs ... Gene Wilder and Cleavon Little in Blazing Saddles (1974). Photograph: Allstar/Warner Bros/Sportsphoto Ltd/Allstar]
At a Bafta lecture in 2018, Spike Lee said: “Fuck John Wayne and John Ford!” Yet Ford was the first director to cast a black actor – former UCLA football star Woody Strode – in a leading role in a mainstream western, Sergeant Rutledge (1960). “John Ford put classic words in my mouth,” Strode later told the New York Times. “You never seen a Negro come off a mountain like John Wayne before.” In Richard Brooks’ The Professionals (1966), Strode received equal screen time, if not equal billing, to Burt Lancaster, Lee Marvin and Robert Ryan. But he also made a mark in spaghetti westerns, notably Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), in which he plays one of the trio of gunmen loitering at the railway station to greet Charles Bronson.
In the 1960s, black actors began to appear in more westerns, if only as barmen, such as Yaphet Kotto holding his own against Dean Martin and Robert Mitchum in Henry Hathaway’s 5 Card Stud (1968), or in oddly peripheral roles, such as Sidney Poitier in his first oater, Ralph Nelson’s unexpectedly gruesome Duel at Diablo (1966). Poitier made up for it when he took over the directing reins of Buck and the Preacher (1972), in which he plays the uncontested lead: a wagonmaster leading emancipated slaves (known as “Exodusters”) from Louisiana to Kansas to escape white raiders hired by plantation owners. En route he forms a Butch and Sundance-style relationship with a bogus preacher played by Harry Belafonte.
Buck and the Preacher did only lukewarm business; mainstream audiences preferred their black cowboys played for laughs in Blazing Saddles (1974), though it’s arguably the white folks’ prejudices that are sent up more than the reluctant black sheriff. Richard Pryor, one of Mel Brooks’s co-scripters, was originally supposed to play the role, but the studio deemed him uninsurable and Cleavon Little was cast instead. A year later, Pryor co-starred in another comedy western, Adiós Amigo (1975), written, directed by and co-starring blaxploitation superstar Fred Williamson, but the results were disappointing.
[Uncontested lead ... Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier in Buck and the Preacher (1972). Photograph: Allstar/Columbia]
Williamson was one of the ex-NFL footballers following Strode into film roles, including in blaxploitation westerns such as The Legend of Nigger Charley (1972), the first of three films defiantly using the N-word in the title; “Controversy is what sells,” said Williamson. In the enjoyable but lightweight Take a Hard Ride (1975), he co-starred with fellow footballer-turned-actor Jim Brown; black martial arts artist Jim Kelly, who had co-starred with Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon, also shows up as a mute Native American.
It wasn’t until the second sequel, Guns of the Magnificent Seven (1969), that the seven included a black actor (the great Bernie Casey in his film debut) in their ranks. So perhaps it’s a sign of improvement that, while westerns are thin on the ground these days, in the 2016 remake The Magnificent Seven are led by Denzel Washington, and Jamie Foxx and Samuel L Jackson get top billing in, respectively, Django Unchained (2012) and The Hateful Eight (2015).
But will Hollywood ever restore the real black cowboy to his rightful role in the western lore from which he has been ousted? There’s no shortage of action-packed subject matter; screenwriters could do worse than take their pick of the larger than life characters in Tricia Martineau Wagner’s book Black Cowboys of the Old West. How about lovable rogue Isom Dart, whose cattle-rustling career was cut short when he was shot dead by ruthless bounty hunter Tom Horn? Or Robert Lemmons, who successfully tamed herds of wild mustangs by pretending to be a horse?
Perhaps Bass Reeves’s hour has finally come. There’s a HBO miniseries in development, as well as an Amazon Studios biopic, to be directed by Chloé Zhao. Keep your fingers crossed for him.
Hell on the Border is on Digital Download now and on DVD 16 March