HARLEM GOES WEST
The Black Cowboy
Whether they escaped the oppression of slavery to the open skies and freedom of the early West or moved there after Emancipation, African Americans contributed significantly to its development. For the first time, many received the opportunity to control their own lives, put down roots, and build families. Although not totally free from violence or racism, the abilities of these settlers stood as the basis for judgement rather than the color of their skin. Most became cowboys on the ranches and ranges of Texas and Oklahoma where they worked as wranglers, bronc riders, top hands and cooks. They were not, however, the mythical cowboys of Hollywood.
Some joined the cattle drives on the famous Chisholm Trail. Other African Americans became businessmen, farmers, soldiers, outlaws or mountain men. A few made it to California for the 1852 gold rush. Some historians estimate that thirty percent of early cowboys were black. Even today most people are unaware of the African-American involvement and contribution to the early growth of the West.
Before the full integration of sound into film in the late 1920s, filmmakers produced a few silent all-black-cast westerns such as The Crimson Skull (1921), The Bull-Dogger (1922), The Flaming Crisis (1924) and Black Gold (1928) specifically for segregated black audiences. Recognizing the growing popularity of westerns featuring white singing cowboys like Gene Autry by both black and white audiences alike, Hollywood producer and director Jed Buell, cast African-American singer Herb Jeffrey in 1937 to star in Harlem on the Prairie, the first of four all-black "singing cowboy" musical westerns. Two Gun Man From Harlem (1938), The Bronze Buckaroo (1939), and Harlem Rides the Range (1939) followed.
In general, however, by the 1940s images of African Americans in the West completely vanished from the screen in Hollywood's fanciful, if grossly distorted presentation of an all-white portrayal of the West. It was not until the 1970s, as the Civil Rights Movement became more prevalent, that westerns such as Man and Boy (1971) and Buck and the Preacher (1972) featured the black cowboy theme again. This shift was also mirrored by the Blaxploitation genre films The Legend of Nigger Charley, Thomasine and Bushrod (1974) and Boss Nigger (1975), in which central black characters became gun-slinging, justice-seeking vigilantes rather than servants or mere caricatures of themselves; Silverado (1985), Posse (1993), and Wild Wild West (1999) although not cinematic masterpieces are among the more recent small number of films that acknowledge the existence of black cowboys in the 19th century West.
THE CRIMSON SKULL
Norman Film Manufacturing Co., 1922
The white-owned Norman Film Manufacturing Company of Jacksonville, Florida, specialized in outdoor adventure motion pictures starring all-black casts in the 1920s. A pioneer of sorts, Richard Norman selected well-known dramatic actors to star in his high quality silent features that were free of derogatory racial stereotypes.
For this, Norman's second feature film, Anita Bush and Lawrence Chenault, were chosen for the leading roles. Bush, making her motion picture debut, began acting on the New York stage in 1903. Following her success at the Lincoln Theater in Harlem and the Lafayette Players Stock Company became known as "The Little Mother of Colored Drama." Chenault, who played three roles, including the film's hero and villain, was the first leading man of the Lafayette Players Stock Company and appeared in more films than any other black actor of the silent film era. Norman also secured the stunt riding services of the famous world champion bull-dogger and rodeo star Bill Pickett.
Norman Film Manufacturing Co., 1923
Bill Pickett, an authentic black American cowboy and Wild West Show star, is credited as the father of "bull-dogging", the art of biting the tender part of a steer's lip and wrestling it to the ground (a technique he learned from watching his dog Spike herding cattle). Nicknamed "the Dusky Demon," Pickett worked alongside Will Rogers and Tom Mix during their early days at the famous Miller Brothers 101 Ranch in Boley, Oklahoma and toured with their traveling Wild West Show throughout the U.S.A., Canada, Mexico, South America and England.
Not as well known is that Pickett was America's first black cowboy star and appeared in two movies for the Norman Film Manufacturing Co. of Jacksonville, Florida. With the success that black filmmakers such as Oscar Micheaux and The Lincoln Motion Picture Company had been enjoying, Richard Norman, who was white, saw a new market in "race films" and hired Pickett to perform in his feature films The Crimson Skull (1922) and The Bull Dogger .
Arguably the most famous rodeo performer of all time, Pickett died in 1932 after being kicked in the head by a horse. In 1971, he was honored as the first black cowboy to be inducted into the National Rodeo Hall of Fame.
THE FLAMING CRISIS
Monarch Productions, 1924
Monarch Productions, a black-owned production company from New York City, is credited with having produced only one film. Calvin Nicholson plays Robert Mason, a newspaperman who exposes a corrupt local labor leader with a lot of political power and on circumstantial evidence, is imprisoned unjustly for the labor leader's murder. After escaping from jail two years later, he migrates to the cattle lands of the Southwest for a series of adventures and falls in love with Tex Miller, played by Dorothy Dunbar, before the film reaches an unexpected and amorous happy finale. Nicholson and Dunbar are not known to have appeared in any other feature films.
Norman Film Manufacturing Co., 1928
The Norman Studios reunited Lawrence Criner and Kathryn Boyd after the mild success of The Flying Ace (1926). Along with Steve "Peg" Reynolds, a one-legged actor, they star in this true story about John Crisp and his struggle to secure oil in spite of the efforts of a crooked drilling contractor. The entire "all-colored city" of Tatums, Oklahoma, takes part in Black Gold and one scene, a fight between the hero and the villain, is staged on Main Street. Boyd did not survive the "talkies," but Criner continued as a featured player in the Lafayette Players Stock Company and in films, including The Duke Is Tops (1938), Am I Guilty? (1940), Miracle in Harlem (1948), among others. He made his last film appearance in The Jackie Robinson Story (1950).
HARLEM ON THE PRAIRIE
Associated Pictures, 1937
Associated Pictures of Hollywood engaged Flourney E. Miller, stage producer, playwright and comedian to adapt an original musical comedy from his previous work " Slim Pickens" for their first all-black cast western film productions. Harlem on the Prairie was the first black musical western and was noted as the first all-colored' picture to play on Broadway in a first-run house. Shot on location at N. B. Murphy's black dude ranch near Victorville, California, the film starred Herbert Jeffrey in his screen debut, as Jeff Kincaid, the baritone singing cowboy.
Mantan Moreland, who appeared in over 300 movies and is best remembered for his work in Hollywood as Birmingham Brown, the chauffeur sidekick in the Charlie Chan mystery series, was added to the cast for some much needed comic relief. Also featured were Spencer Williams, Connie Harris, Maceo B. Sheffield and The Four Tones.
Producer Jed Buell, according to reviews, was to make between four and six similar films. However, the three follow-up black musical westerns (with Herbert Jeffrey) were made by Richard Kahn for Hollywood Productions.
TWO GUN MAN FROM HARLEM
Hollywood Productions, 1938
The charlatan clergyman was a familiar character in black-cast movies of the 1930s, beginning with Paul Robeson's role as the rogue reverend in Oscar Micheaux's Body and Soul (1924). The phony deacon in this musical western is transformed into a "shoot 'em up" cowboy. Ironically, Faithful Mary, a real-life disciple of Father Divine, the founder and leader of a peace-cult religious movement popular in the black community during the 1930s and 1940s, appears in the film. Herbert Jeffrey, in his second all-black western, plays Bob Blake the singing cowboy who along with the Four Tones and The Cats in the Fiddle, provide the musical interludes. Clarence Brooks, Mantan Moreland, Stymie Beard, Jess Lee Brooks and Spencer Williams co-star.
THE BRONZE BUCKAROO
Hollywood Productions, 1939
Filmed on location at the "all-colored" N.B. Murray dude ranch near Victorville, California, The Bronze Buckaroo was part of a series of late 1930s all-black cast westerns including Harlem on the Prairie (1937), Two Gun Man From Harlem (1938), and Harlem Rides the Range (1939).
Bob Blake, the good cowpoke and singing cowboy, played by Herbert Jeffrey, and his sidekick Dusty, played by Flournoy Miller, were characters much beloved by black children who spent Saturday afternoons in segregated movie houses. "Stout of heart, quick of eye, sweet of voice," The Bronze Buckaroo served as a role model for them.Jeffrey (aka Herb Jeffries) is the last surviving member of the 1940 Duke Ellington Orchestra and though not really a jazz singer, a fine interpreter of swing songs. He performed with Earl Hines, Erskine Tate, and Blanche Calloway in the early '30s, but gained his greatest fame while with Ellington, having a big hit with "Flamingo," after becoming an actor and the first black singing cowboy. He remained an active club singer with occasional recordings of ballads, standards and western songs into the mid-1990s.
HARLEM RIDES THE RANGE
Hollywood Productions, 1939
In segregated theaters throughout the country, black children knew that Gene Autry might have his horse Champion, but their real hero, troubadour Herbert Jeffrey, had his Stardusk. Ironically, Jeffrey's horse is white.
Spencer Williams wrote the script and played the villain in this story about a family's control of a radium mine. Harlem Rides the Range was the last of the all-black cast western musicals featuring Jeffrey. In 1940, he hung up his spurs to sing and tour with Duke Ellington's Orchestra.
LOOK OUT SISTER
Astor Pictures, 1948
Saxophonist Louis Jordan, who had acquired a large following of fans, both black and white, by virtue of his recordings with his group, the Tympany Five, turned to co-directing (with veteran stage director Bud Pollard) and starring in this musical western comedy. Confined to a sanatorium to convalesce a physical breakdown after a long road tour with his band, Jordan dreams that he is a cowboy trying to use his musical skills to save a dude ranch for sick children from an evil landlord.
Veteran jazz musicians Paul Quinichette and Bill Doggett help Jordan perform Caldonia, "My New Ten-Gallon Hat," "Jack, You're Dead," and "Don't Burn the Candle at Both Ends," among other songs.
COME ON COWBOY
Toddy Pictures, 1948
Comic Mantan Moreland teamed up in this raunchy western with Johnny Lee, who later became known as attorney Algonquin J. Calhoun on the Amos 'n' Andy television series. Moreland and Lee were both experts at a comedy routine in which two people converse without completing their sentences yet enjoy a harmonious mutual understanding. Moreland appeared in over 300 movies and is best remembered for his prolific work in Hollywood's mainstream comedies, mysteries and horror movies, particularly his role as Birmingham Brown, the chauffeur sidekick in the Charlie Chan mystery series.
Warner Brothers, 1960
Woody Strode, former professional football player for the Los Angeles Rams who successfully broke the NFL's "color line" in 1946, made the most successful transition from sports hero to movie personality. His best, and most serious role was in director John Ford's Sergeant Rutledge.
After the Civil War, four all-black units, the 9th and 10th Cavalry and the 24th and 25th Infantry, played a major role in developing the western frontier. The Native Americans who faced these men in battle called them "buffalo" soldiers.
Told largely in flashback, the film is a mix of traditional western and military courtroom drama, with Strode as the title character, a cavalry soldier accused of the rape and murder of a white girl.
Coinciding nicely with the rise of the Civil Rights Movement, Strode took full advantage of Ford's efforts to treat minority members with more respect than westerns usually did and present the black man as dignified and noble.
Cines Europa, 1967
Plucked by Sammy Davis Jr. from an Atlantic City chorus line in 1963, Lola Falana began her dynamic career on the stage. Beginning her film work in A Man Called Adam (1966), she attained movie stardom first in Italy where she was hailed as the "Black Venus." Her first feature film there was the spaghetti western, Lola Colt, a French and Italian co-production shot in the Spanish desert region of Almería, which greatly resembled the landscape of the American Southwest. Falana plays an opportunistic African-American saloon dancer who gets herself involved with a variety of nefarious characters when she learns that a landowner wants to sell the towns' land to railroad developers. Eventually, she sides with the townspeople and turns gunslinger.
Low budget and violent, spaghetti westerns were a sub-genre of the American western film that emerged from Italy in the 1960s. They included titles such as A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965) and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966), directed by Sergio Leone and starring Clint Eastwood.
Film Ventures International, 1969
One of the many Italian-made westerns of the 1960s & 1970s popularized by director Sergio Leone and actors such as Clint Eastwood early in his career. In Boot Hill (La Collina degli stivali), Italian director Giuseppe Colizzi delivers another serving of spaghetti western with a character-rich, action-packed adventure. Terence Hill and Bud Spencer, staples of the genre, team up with black gunslinger Woody Strode and a traveling circus troupe, to take on a mining syndicate trying to swindle a small town out of its gold.
Boot Hill is the third film in a trilogy featuring Colizzi, Hill and Spencer, the first two in the series having been God Forgives, I Don't (Dio perdona, Io no, 1968) & Revenge at El Paso (I Quattro dell'Ave Maria, 1968).
MAN AND BOY
J. Cornelius Crean Films Inc., 1971
Comedian Bill Cosby made history in the 1960s when he became the first black actor to receive equal billing in a prime-time television series opposite Robert Culp in NBC's I Spy.
He made his feature film debut in Man and Boy, a racially charged western set in the 1870's Southwest. As a Union Army Civil War veteran turned farmer, he settles on the fourteen acres of land earned as a soldier. Together with his expectant wife and young son, the family learns firsthand of the bigotry and violence that blacks face homesteading the western frontier of Arizona.
Harlem, New York may seem like an unlikely location for a rodeo but in 1972 documentary filmmakers and a cast of notable celebrities, actors and bronc riders took to the field at Randall's Island Downing Stadium to present a celebration of the thrill of a cowboy-animal roundup. The film blends elements of a good old-fashioned western show with comments from the performers and spectators and supported by a soundtrack featuring Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, B.B. King and Little Richard. Muhammad Ali, who amusingly entertains all of the rodeo riders, is seen riding a Brahma bull while veteran Hollywood western actor Woody Strode discusses the long and unknown history of the black cowboy and other pioneers of the American West.
BUCK AND THE PREACHER
Columbia Pictures, 1972
The Civil War was over and by law the slaves were freed. But when the promise of land and freedom was not honored, many ex-slaves journeyed out of the land of bondage in search of new frontiers where they could be free at last. They placed their hopes in the hands of a few black wagon-masters that knew the territories of the West. None of this came easy, for not only did they have to overcome a hostile wilderness, but nightriders and bounty hunters were hired by "persons unknown" to hunt them down and turn them back to the fields.
Marked as actor Sydney Poitier's directorial debut, Buck and the Preacher arrived amidst a flood of period blaxploitation films. Poitier also starred, playing a wagon-master, who along with his wife (Ruby Dee) and a con-man preacher (Harry Belafonte) lead a group of freed slaves seeking freedom in the new land of the West.
THE LEGEND OF NIGGER CHARLEY
Only a month after Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte appeared in the six gun tale of humanity Buck and The Preacher, Fred Williamson gave black audiences what they really wanted to see in the 1970s, a strong black man of action in the blaxploitation hit The Legend of Nigger Charley.
Charley (Williamson) a slave in the pre-Civil War South of the 1850s has just been given his freedom by his dying plantation owner. A murder occurs and forces Williamson and two other slaves (D'Urville Martin and Don Pedro Colley) to head westward as gun-totin' fugitives. As with any proper western, the good triumphs over evil and after many gunfights and brawls, the heroes ride off into the sunset.
With an estimated production cost of $400,000 and a considerable box office gross of over $3,000,000, a celluloid sequel The Soul of Nigger Charley was not far behind.
Fanfare Films, 1972
In 1866, after the end of the Civil War, the U.S. Congress reshaped the Army. Among the reorganization, they disbanded the U.S. Colored Troops and formed four all-black regiments: the 9th and 10th Cavalries and the 24th and 25th Infantries. The Army dispatched the units to western territories to keep the peace between white settlers and American Indian tribes. Most of them former slaves, the troops, nicknamed Buffalo Soldiers, developed a reputation for their superb discipline and excellence in battle. Until the United States firmly occupied the entire American Indian territories by 1890, the four black regiments helped settlers inhabit the West. For their contribution to and accomplishments in the Indian Wars, seventeen officers received the U.S. Medal of Honor.
Released during the black-action movie boom of the early 1970s, Soul Soldier (AKA The Red, White and Black) attempted to present black audiences with an historic hero as an alternate to the controversial characters the era's "blaxploitation" genre popularized with such films as Shaft and Super Fly. In Soul Soldier, Robert DoQui, Lincoln Kilpatrick and Olympic gold medalist Rafer Johnson star as members of the U.S. 10th Cavalry.
THE GATLING GUN
Ellman Enterprises, 1973
Designed by the American inventor Richard J. Gatling in 1861, The Gatling gun is a rapid-repeating weapon that used multiple rotating barrels turned by a hand crank.
In this fictional account of the creation of the title weapon, and its impact on the wild frontier of the West, a rough and ragged cavalry troop is given the task of transporting the powerful new weapon to a desert fort. As their path leads them straight into Apache territory, conflict arises when the tribe wants to possess the gun in order to protect their land from outsiders.
Warner Brothers, 1974
Although Richard Pryor had a major role in writing the script of this Mel Brooks western spoof, it was ultimately Cleavon Little who took the part of Bart, a black sheriff in a white town, as the studio considered Pryor too controversial a figure for the title role. Little, however, lacked Pryor's high-strung, no-holds-barred, crazy imagination, and failed to fully play into the absurd racial stereotypes.
The deliberately offensive parody of racism and its idiocy was surprisingly nominated for three Academy Awards. It won a Writers Guild of America Award for Best Comedy Written for the Screen.
THOMASINE AND BUSHROD
Columbia Pictures, 1974
Gordon Parks Jr., who directed the most popular blaxploitation film Super Fly two years earlier, brings to the screen a fictional western intended as a counterpart to Bonnie and Clyde (1967).
Vonetta McGee and Max Julian star as Thomasine and Bushrod, two African-American bank robbers in the Southwest of 1911, who become folk heroes as they move from town to town sharing their wealth with the Mexicans, Native Americans, and poor whites, while basking in the glory of their own notoriety.
Atlas Films, 1975
In 1974, Richard Pryor and Mel Brooks wrote the comedy Blazing Saddles using the western genre. It was always Brooks' intention to have Pryor play the lead, a black sheriff who is given a racist town to govern. The studio however was not about to let an outspoken black comic appear as the voice of reason and steadfastly refused.
During a brief lull in his career, Pryor teamed up with old friend Fred Williamson, who thought "Blazing Saddles was a silly film. I wanted to make a comedy western without the extremes of Gucci saddlebags and other anachronisms, a down and dirty western whose comedy came about from the presence of Richard Pryor." What followed, to the joy of the black community for a change, was a light-hearted western spoof (produced by Williamson's Chicago based Po' Boy Productions) with no strong violence, no sex and little black vs. white hatred. This non-blaxploitation film was a rarity for the mid-70s.
TAKE A HARD RIDE
20th Century Fox, 1975
Prolific Italian filmmaker Antonio Margheriti, (a.k.a. Anthony M. Dawson) known for his science fiction, horror, action and spaghetti westerns, was the only Italian director who worked directly for the American studios like MGM, United Artists, 20th Century Fox and Columbia Pictures. Take a Hard Ride was his attempt to expand the Italian western theme while cashing in on the blaxploitation and kung-fu markets just as those two cycles of film neared their end in popularity. The film stars three champions of their respective genres. An honest cowboy (Jim Brown), a dishonest gambler (Fred Williamson) and a mute Indian scout (Jim Kelly) combine their efforts, while pursued by bounty hunters, to transport $86,000 across the western wilderness to the families to whom it belongs in Mexico.
Po'Boy Productions, 1976
Fred Williamson and his Po'Boy Productions called on Larry Spangler to direct and produce Joshua having successfully utilized his talents earlier with The Legend of Nigger Charley (1972) and The Soul of Nigger Charley (1973).
When his mother is murdered, Joshua (Williamson) fresh out of the Union Army turns vigilante in pursuit of the desperados. The cinematic style is reminiscent of Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns with Clint Eastwood, and is noteworthy in its unrelenting depiction of the loneliness, hostilities and dangers facing a black man in the West shortly after the Civil War.
Gramercy Pictures, 1993
Writer, director, and star Mario Van Peebles, is familiar to audiences from his TV series, Sonny Spoon and the notorious film New Jack City (1991). His father, veteran filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles, known for making socially conscious black oriented films, was one of the first African American directors to emerge in the early 1970s, (Sweet Sweetback, Watermelon Man, and The Story of a Three Day Pass). Posse, an action-packed shoot-em-up western, tries to correct historical misconceptions about black cowboys on the frontier during the Spanish-American War. The story, about an Old West outlaw bent on revenge (Van Peebles), is presented as a flashback drawn from the memories of an old man played by 80 year old Woody Strode, whose considerable screen presence dominated dozens of westerns in the '50s and '60s, most notably Sergeant Rutledge (1960). To attract young audiences, Van Peebles included in the cast rap stars Big Daddy Kane and Tone Loc, along with seasoned favorites like Robert Hooks, Isaac Hayes, Nipsey Russell, Pam Grier, Blair Underwood, and Aaron Neville (who also provided some of the film score).
Van Peebles wrote and directed a sequel Los Locos in 1997.