Quentin Tarantino's controversial Django Unchained is hardly the first Western to feature an African-American lead. Westerns, roughly speaking, portray events from about 1850 to 1920 and some, but not necessarily all of the following criteria are usually fulfilled: someone bathes in a barrel or a river. There is at least one card game, and/or a brawl in a saloon or a whorehouse. There’s a town in peril. There is a heist or a manhunt. And there are several shoot-outs in which people die.
But the pickings are slim when it comes to classic Westerns with a critical mass of black characters. Woody Strobe, a veteran Black actor who has played Black cowboys in many Westerns including Sergeant Rutledge and The Professionals says in Mario Van Peebles’ 1993 film “Posse” that one out of every three cowboys was Black, because after Emancipation, a lot of Blacks headed out West. Some became Buffalo Soldiers, troops in the 9th and the 10th Cavalry. It’s estimated that there are more than 8,000 Black cowboys in the Old West whose stories have never been told because of omissions by Hollywood. Here are six films that try to fill the void:
Two Gun Man from Harlem (1938) Directed by Richard C. Kahn
In this musical Western, cowboy Bob Blake (Herb Jefferies) is mistakenly accused of killing his rancher employer and must head east and take cover in all places, Harlem, where he assumes the identity of “The Deacon”, the two gun man from Harlem. He goes back out West to avenge his name and find his employer’s real killer. Popular Black comedic actor from the thirties, Mantan Moreland, plays a supporting role as a comic cook for the cowboys on the range. Interestingly, the star of the film, Herb Jefferies was considered a Black man throughout his career, but a little known secret revealed in the last few years is that he was only passing for Black in order to work in an all-Black jazz bands and other entertainment venues during segregation. Jefferies is actually of Irish and Italian descent.
Posse (1993) Directed by Mario Van Peebles
Jesse Lee (Mario Van Peebles) is commander of the 10th Cavalry and after surviving battle in Cuba during the Spanish-American War with his posse which include actor-rappers Big Daddy Kane and Tone Loc (who is hilarious) we travel through a number of landscapes from Cuba to New Orleans to the Western Frontier through the Diablo Pass— which is full of Sioux Indians—- to Freemanville, a Black town. After Emancipation many blacks went out West to establish their own towns. These Westward traveling Blacks encountered the same dangers as their White counterparts, and the KKK to boot. Blair Underwood makes a stellar performance as the turncoat sheriff of Freemanville who tries to steal the deeds and sellout the town to the White establishment.
Buffalo Soldiers (1997) Directed by Charles Haid
Danny Glover is Washington Wyatt, an ex-slave from Mississippi who went West with many of his Black brethren and joined the army as a ‘Buffalo Soldier”, the band of U.S. cavalry troops who were pitted against American Indians during the campaigns to wipe out the Indian tribes in the Southwest. This film originally aired on TNT as a made-for-TV movie, but you’d never know because the acting and the storyline are so superb. Actors Timothy Busfield, Glynn Turman, and Carl Lumbly all have supporting roles in Company H, a band of Buffalo Soldiers hunting an Apache warrior named Victorrio.
Buck and the Preacher (1972) Directed by Sydney Portier
Sidney Portier is Buck, a wagon master leading a wagon train of freed slaves out West from Louisiana to start a new life in Oklahoma. Buck eventually meets a trickster “Reverend” William Rutherfurd (Harry Belafonte) and they team-up to defend the wagon train against racist attackers who kill members of the train and steal its money. Buck and the Preacher then unite with Buck’s wife, Ruth (Ruby Dee) the toughest frontier woman you’ll ever see. The three rob a bank to obtain funds for the wagon train. The trio then align themselves with Indians in the region who help them escape from White racists, renegade sheriffs and lynch-mob posses to their promised land in Oklahoma.
Thomasine and Bushrod (1974) Directed by Gordon Parks, Jr.
Set in 1911,self-made bounty hunter Thomasine (Vonette McGee) captures criminals in Texas for money until she sees an old lover vigilante H. P. Bushrod (Max Julien), on the bulletin board in a jail wanted for murder and decides to look for him. Instead of collecting Bushrod’s bounty she falls in love with him again. And they become outlaws dressing up in fancy costumes and robbing banks. Gordon Parks Jr. who also directed Superfly is the son of the famed photographer Gordon Parks, and died tragically at 44 in a plane crash. Parks the younger mixes still photography with moving pictures here to great effect.
Brothers in Arms (2005) Directed by Jean-Claude La Marre
This Western with a hip-hop soundtrack stars Real Housewives of Atlanta diva Kenya Moore as, Mara, a gun-toting half Squaw part of a posse that includes Jean-Claude La Marre ‘s character a gambler named “Slim”; the posse leader “Zane Malone,” played by Antwan Tanner, and rapper Kurupt who plays Zane’s brother and outlaw “Kansas Malone.” The movie has been widely panned for its bad acting, anachronistic costumes and clichéd dialogue, but it’s just so rare to see Black men (or women) portraying a band of cowboys with any agency it’s worth seeing. The film seems to be set in a timeless realm, in which racism doesn’t exist— greed, yes, and injustice, but not racism—and that’s unique among Westerns. Jean-Claude La Marr is a Haitian-American actor-director whose credits include Malcolm X and Dead Presidents.
Makkada B. Selah is a journalist based in New York City. Follow her on Twitter.