For many adults in this country their perception of the period commonly known as ‘The Old West’ came from popular entertainment particularly movies and television programs. We would run home from school to play cowboys and Indians watching the exploits of cattle drivers, marshals and soldiers in the flashing images in front of our eyes. As kids there was a marvelous simplicity to the western. The bad guys wore black hats while the good guys sported clean white Stetsons to go with their always ready six shooters. While there is no doubt that these programs were exciting and influenced us in the formative years as we defined out taste in entertainment it cannot be said that the images we received were accurate in anything more than a cursory level. Like much of the sources of entertainment available then the United States western frontier was populated almost exclusively by white people. If people of color were even depicted it was inevitably along strictly enforced racial lines. Native Americans were savages that attacked peaceful settlements. Asians were servants or cheap labor in railroad work camps while the black men were often shown as only capably of harsh manual labor or former slaves aimless after the dissolution of the South. This is not only exceptionally inaccurate it is insulting to the cultural and ethnic tapestry that really built this great nation. Over time there have been attempts to rectify this injustice by showing at least a modicum of the truth about the contributions various races made in the formative years of the American nation. One of the earliest of this trend of films was released in 1993, ‘Posse’. The movie was not well received critically and made a less than stellar box office but after revisiting the film after a number of years it can be stated that much of the criticism was on a technical nature attributed to a young, talented actor making the extremely difficult transition to the other side of the camera. The film was well intentioned and honestly made which goes a long way to respecting the efforts of those involved. This is a case where the film tried something that directly opposed the expectations of the audience by taking a well established genre in an entirely different direction.
The film was directed by Mario Van Peebles, son of one of the staples of the seventies black exploitation flicks, Melvin Van Peebles. Back in the hay day of the grind house his dab became one of the breakout stars of the genre. Mario had worked his way up through the industry becoming a hard working actor before moving on to direction. This was only his second feature film in this capacity and whiles his enthusiasm is well evident as is the fact that he was still on the learning curve for that aspect of his craft. His previous work as a director was for the inner city drug thriller ‘New Jack City’. To his credit Peebles was willing to put himself out on a professional limb with a Black oriented western. The major hurdle was one of public perception although Peebles suffered from the new director’s syndrome of overdoing every scene by cramming in every possible stylistic trick conceivable. In his defense many great directors found themselves on a similar learning curve to rise to innovative filmmakers. Peebles has the tendency here to cut too quickly and much too often not giving the scene a natural opportunity to meld into an integral part of the story. The overall effect is quite disconcerting making it problematic to fully get into the story. While this is an important part of American history and one that even now is largely ignored except perhaps for a few minute TV spots in February.
Jesse Lee (Mario Van Peebles) is in charge of the 10th Cavalry Buffalo Soldier unit, a company comprised almost entirely of African American soldiers. The movie opens with the unit heavily engaged in Cuba during the Spanish-American War. The men were at the point of being overrun forcing Jesse to seek permission to retreat from Colonel Graham (Billy Zane). He is a resolved bigot who barely acknowledges the humanity of his men. Just for his personal, sadistic amusement he offers Jesse a deal. If he kills a man accused of desertion which is refused. Jesse’s command is reassigned to a prisoner, Little J (Stephen Baldwin). The unit is given an assignment to guard a gold shipment which requires civilian clothing. The Colonel contrives to twist the circumstances to have Jesse and the others in the unit declared deserter facing summary execution. Eventually there is an ultimate racial showdown when the Ku Klux Klan is introduced to reinforce the bigotry theme.
There was a touch of inspired stunt casting with roles given to Pam Grier and Isaac Hayes. Both of these actors were famous in their capacities as frequent leads in the Black exploitation films that brought fame to Peebles’ father. It is fitting since this film did serve as part of the transition between those grind house flicks and more substantial, main stream black cinema. While Peebles has trouble keeping on track in this second Independent movie he certainly learned from the experience going on to become a notable and focused filmmaker. The complaint that held some validity is that Peebles permits a valuable message overwhelms the primary element of the western, entertainment. This was just too much of a departure for the audience. There is a lot of action and if it is possible to cram too much into a western this is a case in point. The meaning of the message is not nurtured properly forcing the film to straddle the line between overly didactic and nearly senseless violence. This is an internal inconsistency and contradiction that a new director could not compensate for resulting in much of movie’s impact being loss. From a cinematic point of view this film does have a place in history but it demonstrated that audiences just were not ready for what the movie had to say.