The Western is the quintessential US genre, in many ways inseparable from its cultural tradition across both literature and cinema. It is, of course, also an incredibly white genre. But there have been exceptions over the years. Film scholar Mia Mask has programmed the series Black Westerns for the Criterion Channel, highlighting movies that feature Black protagonists in tales from across the US West. Here are some titles to check out.
An absolutely stacked cast (both Mario and Melvin Van Peebles, Isaac Hayes, Pam Grier, Tiny Lister, Reginald VelJohnson, Tone-Lōc, Billy Zane, even more) features in this dynamic action flick, also directed by Mario Van Peebles. In 1898, a squad of Buffalo Soldiers seize a cache of gold and try to abscond with it. But in the tradition of all the best Westerns, they find themselves irresistibly drawn to do the right thing, in this case protecting an all-Black town they come upon.
Black Rodeo (1972)
New York’s first all-Black rodeo went down in 1972 in Harlem, and Jeff Kanew and his documentary crew were there to capture it. Besides the impressive feats of horsemanship and derring-do, the film also features the likes of Muhammad Ali and Woody Strode (one of the few prominent Black actors from the golden age of Hollywood Westerns) talking about the under-discussed history of Black cowboys.
There’s been a recent movement to discuss the buried stories of racist massacres in the US. Decades ago, John Singleton was ahead of the game in trying to draw attention to this history, with a dramatization of the events around the 1923 Rosewood massacre in Florida. It follows several characters who rally the townspeople of Rosewood to defend themselves from the white mob attacking them, taking numerous liberties with the real story in order to bring the long-suppressed truth to light.