Following the release of the Harry Belafonte ‘bio-documentary’ Sing Your Song in UK cinemas, I decided to look at some of the Belafonte movies available on DVD. In all the coverage of the new documentary relatively little has been said about Belafonte’s film work – which though not extensive was important in the development of African-American cinema, not least because the actor-singer produced his own films at a time when few African-Americans had any direct power in the industry. Belafonte’s second independent production company, Belafonte Enterprises, made the film in conjunction with Columbia. Belafonte took the second lead, but the star and director of the film was Sidney Poitier (who took over from the first director, Joseph Sargent). Ruby Dee, often paired with Poitier as an actor and with Belafonte as an activist, was billed third. The script was by the distinguished TV writer Ernest Kinoy who had written another Sidney Poitier script, Brother John, a year earlier and who would go on to contribute scripts to the TV serial Roots (1977) and its sequel in 1979. The music for the film was composed by Benny Carter, the great jazz band leader, and includes contributions from Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee.
Buck and the Preacher belongs to the cycle of ‘revisionist Westerns’ in the early 1970s when the counter culture and the anti-war movement in the US managed to find an outlet in the New Hollywood. This was the period of Soldier Blue (1970) and Ulzana’s Raid (1972), but the most popular Western of the 1970s was Mel Brooks’ comedy Blazing Saddles (1974). What links these three very different films is a debunking of the mythology of the West and a reappraisal of the representation of characters who would later be known as ‘African-Americans’ and ‘Native Americans’. This same period also saw the commercial success of a range of ‘Blaxploitation’ films, led by urban crime thrillers like Shaft (1971) and this development also included Blaxploitation Westerns, especially the cycle of films starring Fred Williamson – The Legend of Nigger Charley (1972), its sequel The Soul of Nigger Charley (1973) and Boss Nigger (Black Bounty Hunter, 1974). The creation of Black ‘super-heroes’ in different settings attracted audiences (partly because of the provocative titles which created controversy) but didn’t really engage with the Western myths or the conventions of the genre as such. In his magisterial BFI Companion to the Western (1971), editor Ed Buscombe argues that Buck and the Preacher did precisely that – and that makes it an important film both for African-American cinema and the Western.
The narrative focuses on an aspect of American history largely neglected by Hollywood – the attempt by freed slaves from the South, after the Civil War ended, to head West on wagon trains, seeking new lands. Poitier plays ‘Buck’, an ex Union Cavalry sergeant, who sets himself up as a wagonmaster who will pilot wagon trains through hostile territory. He makes a deal with the local Native American chief to allow the wagon trains an unhindered passage, but he also has to battle a band of ex-Confederate soldiers. These men have been hired by plantation-owners in the South to drive the freed slaves back into low-paid employment in the cottonfields and their tactics are vicious and uncompromising. Ruby Dee plays Buck’s wife and Belafonte plays a con-man preacher who clashes with Buck but eventually forms an uneasy alliance with him to fight the ex-Confederates.
The history of African-American cinema is usually presented via three distinct phases in Hollywood and then a question mark about what is happening today. In the first phase early American cinema and Hollywood in the silent era drew upon a range of Black stereotypes that had been developed in the nineteenth century. Donald Bogle’s ‘Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films’ revised in 1992 has the main title of Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks. These five types defined the roles offered to Black actors in mainstream Hollywood (although initially, following the practices of minstrelsy, white actors ‘blacked up’ for some roles). In the 1930s Black entrepreneurs struggled to offer an alternative to this Hollywood condescension but they did manage to produce low-budget independent Black films exploring popular genres – including Black Westerns such as the ‘Western Musical’ Harlem on the Prairie (1937) and the much earlier The Bull-Dogger (1922).
Hollywood eventually reacted to the potential of the Black popular audience with the gradual development of mainstream films with Black themes – and predominantly Black casting – by the late 1940s and early 1950s when Poitier and Belafonte were young actors seeking work. This was the second phase of African-American cinema with films that were presented as ‘liberal’ dramas attempting to deal with some elements of social realism. However, the old stereotypes remained in place. Sidney Poitier was the 1950s ‘good Negro’, essentially a ‘Tom’ derived from the character in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Ruby Dee was the ‘good Negro wife’ and Harry Belafonte was seen as the ‘beautiful, sexy young man’ – the ‘Buck’ (which he resisted strongly and which no doubt was one of the reasons why he focused more on his musical career). The third phase was associated with the Blaxploitation cycle which critiqued the old stereotypes and the most immediate signal of change was evident in the casting of Poitier, quite literally, as ‘Buck’ with Ruby Dee still his wife, but now supporting him in actions which under the conventions of the Western represent resistance to the dominant ideology. Meanwhile, Belafonte is cast as the ‘Preacher’, a con-man role which featured in several of the earlier Black Westerns of the 1930s/40s.
Buck and the Preacher is partly a comedy and that may be both why the film was a relative commercial success, but also why it hasn’t perhaps been given the status it deserves. As Ed Buscombe points out, the script is intelligent and knowing in its play with the conventions and the performances are very enjoyable. Poitier doesn’t just play the ‘Buck’, he overplays the role, sporting two mini-howitzers rather than conventional six-guns. There is an exhilaration in the way in which all three leads become ‘Western heroes’ and Bogle tells us that Black audiences cheered at the sight of the three heroes racing their horses across the screen pursued by a sheriff’s posse – I won’t spoil the narrative by revealing why they are on the run. The smiles are more wry in the key scene when Buck negotiates with the Native American chief who responds to the argument that Black and Red men have both suffered at the hands of the Whites by pointing out that Buck had served in the Union Army. This again feels like a commentary on Poitier’s previous roles in Hollywood – as well as, perhaps, a comment on the way in which Black soldiers had become a crucial element in the US Army in Vietnam.
I highly recommend the film as an enjoyable Western and a film that at least lifts a corner of the carpet under which the African-American experience of the ‘Old West’ has been carefully swept by Hollywood. You can download my notes on Harry Belafonte and Hollywood here: BelafonteNotes