FILMS

Black in the saddle

Bringing a hit of soul to the classic western

Brian D. Johnson May 17 1993
FILMS

Black in the saddle

Bringing a hit of soul to the classic western

Brian D. Johnson May 17 1993

Black in the saddle

FILMS

Bringing a hit of soul to the classic western

The western was supposed to be dead. But in the past few years, it has come back with a vengeance— and a revisionist agenda. First, Kevin Costner overturned the Hollywood myth of how the West was won with Dances with Wolves (1990), his romantic epic about Indian dignity. Then, last year, Clint Eastwood shot up his own gunslinger legend in the antiheroic western (Jnforgiven. Now, actor-director Mario Van Peebles has opened up a new frontier with Posse, Hollywood’s first major black western. It is a younger, noisier, less reflective film than either Dances or Unforgiven. But it stands with them as another landmark in the evolution of a genre that has become a barometer of attitudes towards violence in America.

The son of film-maker Melvin Van Peebles, Mario, 36, began his career as an actor. He made a splashy directing debut two years ago with the critically acclaimed hit New Jack City, a visceral, morally charged melodrama about black drug lords in Los Angeles. Posse is more ambitious and more impressive. It is a full-bore action movie, rich with all the elements of a classic western. And Van Peebles is wary about seeing it branded a black western. “We have more white people in Posse than Unforgiven had black people,” he told Maclean’s in Los Angeles recently,

“but they didn’t call that a white western.” Posse is escapist entertainment, but it does have an inescapable message. While establishing the black cowboy’s place in frontier history, it doubles as a fable for contemporary race war. “There were a lot of things I wanted to do with Posse,” said Van Peebles. “How many people know that one out of every three cowboys was black, or that of the 44 first settlers in Los Angeles, 26 were black? How many people know the very name ‘cowboy1 came from the fact that slave hands used to take care of the livestock, and they’d call them ‘Boy?’”

Aside from setting the historical record straight, Posse is also riddled with allusions to the Rodney King trial and last year’s Los Angeles riots. During a massive shootout, as white marauders armed with heavy artillery are reducing a black township to splinters, a plaintive voice cries out absurdly from a storefront, “Can’t we all just get along?”—a quotation from King. Another line, “No justice, no peace,” echoes the slogan that galvanized Los Angeles blacks during the King trial.

Putting a righteous spin on frontier justice, Posse embraces the spirit of Malcolm X’s credo, “By any means necessary.” But unlike Spike Lee’s movie, Malcolm X, which opens with video footage of the King beating, Posse uses its contemporary references for comic

relief. “I wanted the movie to laugh at itself,” said Van Peebles. Posse’s a western, and it’s not trying to be anything else.”

It is a panoramic tale that begins in the Cuban jungle during the Spanish-American War of the 1890s. Persecuted by a corrupt commanding officer (Billy Zane), a sharpshooter named Jesse (Van Peebles) and his white lieutenant, Little J (Stephen Baldwin), flee with a band of buffalo soldiers (black infantrymen). In New Orleans, they team up with a slick riverboat gambler named Father Time, played with flamboyant swagger by rap star Big Daddy Kane. Forming an outlaw posse, they ride west, heading for Jesse’s birthplace, a utopian community called Freemanville founded by ex-slaves after the Civil War. (Co-writer Sy Richardson based it on a black township founded by his own grandfather, King David Lee.)

Jesse has returned on a mission of vengeance. His memory is seared by flashbacks to a white rampage that killed his father, a pastor, who was literally crucified on the timber frame of his own church. Freemanville’s Sheriff Carver, played by Blair Underwood of TV’s L.A. Law, preaches Christian nonviolence. But Jesse sees no point in “a whole lot of colored people down on their knees prayin’ for pie in sky.” And religion is no defence against the white vigilantes from the neighboring town, who are led by the villainous Sheriff Bates (Richard Jordan)—the name is a play on Daryl Gates, the former LA police chief.

With Posse, Peebles displays astonishing range and vigor as a director. Skilfully downshifting from action to comedy to serious drama, he maintains a kinetic visual style throughout. His camera almost never stops moving. One of the few times it does is for an awkward romantic interlude, a glossy foldout of sex and sentiment. It is the film’s one glaring weakness. And as Jesse’s half-Indian girlfriend, Lana, Salli Richardson gives a stilted performance in an underwritten role.

The director seems more at ease directing a skinny-dipping scene involving just the boys—a lighthearted homoerotic diversion that strips all the macho posturing down to its bare essentials. Posse is in every sense a gang movie. And Peebles recruited his cast from several generations of black stars, from 1960s comedian Nipsey Russell to rappers Tone Loc and Kane. He also cast his father in a supporting role.

As the lead, meanwhile, the director projects the strong, silent charisma of Clint Eastwood in Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns—he even wears the same style of hat. Van Peebles, who appeared with Eastwood in Heartbreak Ridge (1986), says that the actor told him: “Sometimes it’s better to play a character back a little bit from the audience. If they’re interested, they’ll lean in—you don’t have to fill in all the blanks.” Van Peebles has learned his lesson well. But he is riding with his own posse, and bringing a hit of soul to the Hollywood western.

BRIAN D. JOHNSON in Los Angeles