In Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, Jamie Foxx plays the Django – an abused slave who’s freed by a bounty hunter played by Christoph Waltz. Upon his liberation, he strikes a deal with the German: if he helps him hunt down a trio of fugitives, Waltz will help him track down his wife. It’s a journey that takes them all the way to Mississippi, where she has since become the house slave of a cruel landowner (played by Leonardo DiCaprio).
With obvious references to the films of Sergio Leone and Blaxploitation cinema of the 70s (Superfly, Black Caesar, Shaft, etc…), Tarantino has created an incredibly entertaining film. But within the strange context of an ultra-violent exploitation western, he hasn’t shied away from depicting the cruel racism and abuse of slavery-era America. There are scenes of torture but there’s also a memorable section where DiCaprio’s methodically explains his theory of genetic supremacy.
But while Django has quickly become the most iconic of African-Americans ‘cowboys’, Tarantino’s film certainly isn’t the first Western to star black actors.
With the digital release of Django Unchained this week at blinkbox, we wanted to take a look back at some other westerns that featured black leading characters. Some of them are low-budget exploitation films from the 70s, some are more mainstream. But in most cases, they had something interesting to say about the social politics of not only the Wild West, but of the times in which they were made.
1. Buck and the Preacher (1972)
Sidney Poitier directs himself in a revenge western. Poitier plays a newly freed slave who takes on a group of racist horsemen who kill a number of men, women and children in his wagon train. Along the way, he finds an unlikely ally in Harry Belafonte. Little under ten years before, Poitier had become the first man of colour to win an Oscar for Best Actor; Belafonte had also joined the small group of black vocalists to crack the white American music market. But between the two of them, they were still unable to find their usual mainstream audiences with Buck and the Preacher.
2. Blazing Saddles (1974)
Widely considered one of the finest comedies ever made, Mel Brooks followed up his seminal film The Producers with this remarkably ambitious comedy set in the Old West. In a part originally intended for Richard Pryor, actor Cleavon Little plays Bart, the black sheriff of a frontier town. Appointed by a greedy governor to scare the townsfolk into abandoning the settlement, Sheriff Bart teams ups with a drunken gunslinger (Gene Wilder) to win over the his skeptical public.
While it’s true that this was made for a mainly white mainstream audience, Blazing Saddles doesn’t smooth the edges off the social comment. The parts of the film dealing with race issues still ring true and on review, movie never feels all that dated. On top of that, the film is so packed full of hilarious moments, you could literally have an entire pub conversation just quoting Blazing Saddles scenes.
3. Boss N****r (1974)
If there’s one common trend in the Blaxploitation films of the 60s and 70s, it’s that they showcased the acting skills of many a retired professional sports stars. Jim Brown found himself in great films like The Dirty Dozen and Ice Station Zebra after he wrapped up his career in the Cleveland Browns; The Buffalo Bills’ record-setting running back OJ Simpson transitioned smoothly into film and TV before shifting his career into definitely not murdering anyone.
In the case of Adios Amigos, we see the directorial debut of Fred “The Hammer” Williamson – a feared NFL defensive back who parlayed his success on the field into an acting career. After a number of grindhouse roles, he appeared wrote, produced and starred in the Blaxploitation western Boss N****r. He played the title character, a black bounty hunter forced to rely on his wits and weapons to make his way in a racist white town. Praised by critics as both a pastiche of the Spaghetti Westerns and as a parable for the Black Panther movement, the film found some success at the box-office and marked a high point in Williamson’s film career.
The year after, he would try his hand at directing Adios Amigo, a comedy-Western with Richard Pryor. It was not a good movie.
At the point when this film was made, Bill Cosby was a household name. He was the first African American lead in a primetime drama, starring in I, Spy with Robert Culp as a pair of government agents masquerading as wealthy ‘tennis bums’. In that period, he had also released a number of successful comedy albums (including To Russell, My Brother, Whom I Slept With which is now considered one of the greatest stand-up records of all time). So when the trailer for Man and Boy announced Cosby’s ‘stunning switch from his TV and comedy portrayals’, they weren’t kidding around. He plays a civil war veteran who heads west to Arizona to forge a new life for his family. But in the wild frontier, he finds himself up against all sorts of outlaws.
Check out the trailer here!
As with next to everything he’s ever done, Cosby’s film does not deal with matters of race and equality in a particularly overt way. Instead, he always sought projects with positive black figures: ones in which his character’s race was almost incidental to the story. Also, Cosby’s wife is played by Gloria Foster, who you may know as The Oracle from The Matrix. There is also a character called ‘Lee Christmas’ — which action fans will know as Jason Statham’s name in The Expendables.
It’s sad to say, however, that this film was another unspectacular Western that has since been forgotten over time.
A loose adaptation of 60s TV serial, Wild Wild West began its big screen life as a Mel Gibson collaboration with his Lethal Weapon director Richard Donner. But when those two decided to remake Maverick (another television western), it left the door open for Barry Sonnenfeld and Will Smith, both of whom were riding high off a recent success with Men in Black. Boldly casting Will Smith in a lead role originally played by (white) actor Robert Conrad, any discourse about 19th Century social politics were quickly scuppered by a litany of terrible ideas. Crazy steam-punk devices, ridiculous villains and giant mechanical spiders aside, the film’s story barely makes any sense and critics tore it apart on release.
And when the film finally came to address the idea of a black Secret Service agent in post-civil war America, Smith stumbles into a regrettable piece of ‘banter’ with the wheelchair-bound villain played by Kenneth Branagh.
It’s tough to tell whether this exchange is more insulting to disabled people or the African-American community but needless to say, it’s really not cool.
Django Unchained is now available to buy at blinkbox