Blacks in a White and Indian West

Nicholas Chennault ~ February 7, 2014

Blacks in a White and Indian West

The American west is usually depicted, accurately enough depending on the time, as a region not heavily populated, but those who show up in westerns tend to be mostly white or Indian, or Hispanic in the southwest and Texas.  History indicates that there have long been blacks among them, however, from William Clark’s slave York with the Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery (freed by Clark in 1811), and Jim Beckwourth in the mountain man era beginning in the 1820s.  We know that the proportion of blacks among cowboys was probably higher in Texas, a former slave state, and there were free black towns in Kansas after the Civil War.  But there haven’t been that many westerns in which blacks play a significant part or are in evidence at all.  Of course, there were minorities of various kinds in the history of the American west (Hawaiians with early fur trappers, eastern Iroquois among the fur traders and mountain men, Chinese building the railroads and in mining towns) who are frequently underrepresented in westerns, too, if we’re approaching the issue in an accounting frame of mind.  But those are other lists, or too few to even warrant lists.

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Charles Russell’s depiction of York with the Corps of Discovery; Jim Beckwourth, in a photograph taken about 1860 in Denver.  Coming west among the early mountain men, Beckwourth lived among the Crows, where he was known as Medicine Calf.

Beginning in 1960, there have been conscious attempts to show blacks as participants in the western experience.  Below is a collection of such films, although there must be others as well.  If you know of a film left off the list, leave a comment.

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The Wonderful Country (1959, Sgt. Satchel Paige leading buffalo soldiers)

Sergeant Rutledge (1960, Woody Strode)

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962, Woody Strode)

Rio Conchos (1964, Jim Brown)

Duel at Diablo (1966, Sidney Poitier)

The Professionals (1966, and anything else with Woody Strode)

The Scalphunters (1968, Ossie Davis)

Five Card Stud (1968, Yaphet Kotto)

Shalako (1968, Woody Strode)

Once Upon a Time in the West (1968, Woody Strode)

Sam Whiskey (1969, Ossie Davis)

Boot Hill (1969, Woody Strode)

Man and Boy (1971, Bill Cosby)

Skin Game (1971, Louis Gossett Jr.)

The Deadly Trackers (1971, Paul Benjamin)

Buck and the Preacher (1972, Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte)

The Legend of Black Charley (1972, Fred Williamson)

The Revengers (1972, Woody Strode)

Cahill U.S. Marshal (1973, Vance Davis)

Blazing Saddles (1974, Cleavon Little)

Thomasine and Bushrod (1974, Vonette McGee and Max Julien)

The Shootist (1976, Scatman Crothers)

Silverado (1985, Danny Glover and Lynn Whitfield)

Lonesome Dove (1989, Danny Glover)

Unforgiven (1992, Morgan Freeman)

Posse (1993, Van Peebles et al.)

Lightning Jack (1994, Cuba Gooding, Jr.)

Children of the Dust (aka A Good Day to Die, 1995, MfTV, Sidney Poitier)

The Quick and the Dead (1995, Keith David, Woody Strode)

Buffalo Soldiers (MfTV, 1997, Danny Glover et al.)

Ride With the Devil (1999, Jeffrey Wright)

Texas Rangers (2001, Usher Raymond)

Jericho (2001, Leon Coffee)

Gallowwalkers (2012, Wesley Snipes)

Django Unchained (2012, Jamie Foxx)

The Hateful Eight (2015, Samuel L. Jackson)

The Magnificent Seven (2016, Denzel Washington)

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 Mostly Black Westerns

Two-Gun Man from Harlem (1938, Jeffrey)

Harlem Rides the Range (1939, Jeffrey)

Buck and the Preacher (1972, Poitier, Belafonte)

Posse (1993, Van Peebles)

Comedies Featuring Slavery

The Scalphunters (1968)

Skin Game (1971)

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Jim Brown in Mexico

Rio Conchos (1964)

100 Rifles (1969)

El Condor (1970)

Take a Hard Ride (1975, with Fred Williamson and Jim Kelly)

Interracial Marriage

Death of a Gunfighter—(1969) Richard Widmark and Lena Horne

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