Nat Love (Jonathan Majors) is a Wild West gunslinger. He is in love with shotgun-toting singer and bar owner Stagecoach Mary (Zazie Beetz).
His leadership of an outlaw gang is undermined by his obsessive hunting for brutal, charismatic bandit Rufus Buck (Idris Elba). Aged ten he watched Buck murder his mother and preacher father.
The film is an exhilarating, operatic revenge drama, its almost totally black cast filmed against spectacular New Mexico scenery. Race is rarely mentioned but is always present. When someone says Buck is the Devil, another corrects them, “No, the devil is white”.
Black British director and co‑writer Jeymes Samuel’s background is in music—and rapper Jay-Z is one of the film’s producers. There is a rhythmic sense of movement throughout as it a mixes wit with slick action and bloody violence.
It recalls that there are other outlaw mythologies than Hollywood’s.
And it features black rebel music from the Fisk Jubilee Singers, through roots reggae to hip hop.
The “Wild West” was built on myth.
That was usually of a racist “manifest destiny” that defeated the natives and tamed the West to create the democratic, free but usually white US.
These myths snake from John Wayne riding tall, through spaghetti westerns, to Sam Peckinpah’s bloodstained fables.
This is a reimagined black west with the land divided into separate black and white towns.
And because this is a fantasy land, viewers may not realise that these towns existed.
After the Civil War tens of thousands of former slaves headed west, founding more than 50 all- black towns, mostly in Oklahoma.
These towns—from the first Langston to the largest Boley—prospered until Oklahoma became a state in 1907 and a series of racist Jim Crow laws disenfranchised the black population.
The film opens with the words, “Although these events are fictional, These. People. Existed.”
While the central gang members’ names are taken from real people, marshal Bass Reeves is the only one who bears the slightest relationship to historical reality. Yes, Rufus Buck and Cherokee Bill were both outlaws, though not together. But Stagecoach Mary was the first black woman employed to take mail through the west.
She became famous aged about 60 as she defended her cargo with her shotgun.
Nat Love and Bill Pickett were cowboys. Pickett found fame as a wrangler who could wrestle steers to the ground.
The film is fantastic—developing larger than life heroes in a mythic past.
But it would be more exciting to see dramas about the real people whose names have been used, when Hollywood has so resolutely ignored this reality. Dianne Houston, who wrote for TV’s Empire and When We Rise is attempting to make a series about Boley—and that should be good.
The first all black western, The Crimson Skull, was filmed there in 1921 starring the real Pickett.
At that time the US’s most popular blockbuster was Birth of A Nation celebrating the murderous racism of the Ku Klux Klan.
The alternative truth has still to be told in cinema.