Ahh, ‘The Old West'. Where men were men. White men that is.
Stalwart moneymakers for the big studios, westerns gave us the best and worst of humanity; generally along a very traditional and stereotypical gendered and racial binary.
Until Buck and The Preacher came along that is.
Having little in common with the John Ford epics of the 1950s, 1972s Buck and The Preacher bridges a fascinating gap between Blaxploitation, Western, and Buddy comedy. With characterisation that feels like a clear influence on much that came later, including 80s classic Lethal Weapon, and the sort of musical and visual juxtaposition that Tarantino would kill for.
Buck (Sidney Poitier) is escorting a Wagon train of emancipated slaves across the Western states, on their way to Colorado. They are pursued by a group of white bounty hunters out of Louisiana, where their ex-owners feel they have been hard done by and want their workers back. After an altercation with these bounty hunters, Buck finds himself without a horse. He tries to steal one from The Preacher (Harry Belafonte) a travelling preacher who is not your typical Christian evangelist. He's more the gun toting comic book type, and after some horse stealing shenanigans the two men team up to take on the bad guys and secure the safe passage of their charges.
It's clear to see that a team of white writers and directors could not have made this film. The influences of Black cinema are clear and Sidney Poitier's direction (his first) skirts that line brilliantly. It's dated of course, but at the same time is fiercely progressive and bold as hell.
Not just for Black men either. Buck's wife Ruth (Ruby Dee) rides alongside them, central and in front, a clear nod to the respect and strength afforded to Black women in these stories. She is not a damsel, often being the smartest of the trio despite not taking part in the more violent action. The three leads spell out the intertwined nature of Black cinema and the Black rights movement. With Dee appearing later in multiple Spike Lee films, and Belafonte using his fame as a jumping off point for involvement with activism, boasting friendships with Martin Luther King Jr. among others.
Poitier famously said that he dreams of the day when his Blackness isn't part of the plot, and Buck and The Preacher feels like a step in that direction. His character is motivated by his race to support these families of course, but he doesn't need to. And the same story would have technically worked with a white actor in his place, fitting neatly among the myriad of white saviour stories we still see told today. It wouldn't have been nearly as good though.
The new Blu-ray release from Criterion boasts their usual brilliantly curated collection of bonus features. Including contemporary behind the scenes footage and more modern interviews.
Ultimately, Buck and The Preacher is a flawed and dated western. However, underneath that it has so much to say about Westerns, cinema as a whole, and Black people's place in America from history to modern times, that it's worthy of reverence and respect.
- New 4K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack
- New interview with Mia Mask, author of Black Rodeo: A History of the African American Western
- Behind-the-scenes footage featuring actor-director Sidney Poitier and actor-producer Harry Belafonte
- Interviews with Poitier and Belafonte from 1972 episodes of Soul! and The Dick Cavett Show
- New interview with Gina Belafonte, daughter of Harry Belafonte
- English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
- PLUS: An essay by critic Aisha HarrisNew illustration by Sean Phillips
Buck and The Preacher rides into the Criterion collection on Special Edition Blu-ray on 26th September