Buck and the Preacher is a hugely important American film for numerous reasons. It was the directorial debut of Sidney Poitier, who was the first African-American movie star. It’s also one of the first studio films directed by an African-American (Gordon Parks beat him to it by only two years with The Learning Tree). It was the first on-screen pairing of Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte, and it was also one of the first mass-market Westerns to be told from an African-American perspective. However, Poitier was a replacement for the white workmanlike director Joseph Sargent, who Poitier and Belafonte felt wasn’t bringing the right approach to the film. The stars both wanted a Black director, and ultimately decided that Poitier should direct, because it would be easier to have him helm it instead of fighting with the studio to hire a young Black filmmaker.
Black westerns had always existed, but they were small independent productions that played mainly in Black cinemas. With the Civil Rights movement (which both Poitier and Belafonte were heavily involved with), there started being more black stories in Westerns, which at the time were a highly popular genre. However, Western films then—and to some extent still today—often whitewashed how Black the west actually was: at least one in four “cowboys” were black, and it’s been suggested that the term “cowboy” was a reference to Black cow-herders, hence “get that cow.. boy.”
For example, John Ford’s The Searchers is one of the greatest and most famous westerns, but the basis for John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards was actually a Black man Brit Johnson. I’m not one for remaking films, but a film of Brit Johnson’s life could be a great Western (Tony Todd did play him in a ’90s TV mini-series.) Ford, being the good Irish Catholic that he was, attempted to atone for his sins by making Sergeant Rutledge and Cheyenne Autumn, which dealt with the mistreatment of African-Americans and Native Americans in the West. While certainly a little more nuanced than his contemporaries, Ford was undoubtedly responsible for portraying Native Americans in a negative light in many films.
Being a man of his time, Poitier was a huge fan of Westerns from an early age, and always dreamed of playing a Western hero. Buck and the Preacher wasn’t his first western, however, that was 1966’s Duel at Diablo, but it was the first time he was the leading hero in a western. Poitier and Belafonte had been friends for years before the film. They both got their start in the American Negro Theatre in ’40s. At the time of Buck and the Preacher, Poitier and Belafonte hadn’t spoken in a few years, having fallen out in the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King (who was a close personal friend of both men) because they disagreed about how to respond to it. Belafonte was always a far more outspoken activist, which probably made his acting career suffer, while Poitier did a careful balancing act between his career and activism, which did draw some harsh criticism from the Black community. Regardless, this film brought the two men back together.
In any case, Buck and the Preacher is an interesting western. It’s set during Reconstruction, when freed slaves were trying to get out West. Poitier plays Buck, a wagon-master who has friendly dealings with the Native Americans but had also been a Buffalo Soldier, so that’s a complicated relationship. Buck helps the former slaves to make their way west, but owners of Southern plantations are trying to get their former slaves to stay down South to work on their plantations. They have hired posses to stop the former slaves by any means necessary. Belafonte plays a con-man preacher who ends up joining up with Buck and his wagon train. Ruby Dee plays Buck’s cunning wife Ruth, who is really the emotional centre of the film.
Poitier is fantastic in the part, which kind of goes without saying, and pulls off the stoic Western hero magically. Belafonte, who is almost unrecognizable in his get-up, is kind of in the comedic role. He is very good, but I’m never a huge one for comedic characters in Westerns. The film was beautifully photographed by Álex Phillips Jr., who had a long history in Mexican films (Phillips Sr. was one of the most notable cinematographers in Mexico). He went on to shoot one of the best ’80s slasher films, Fade to Black, and was even second-unit on Total Recall.
Buck and the Preacher may not quite be the instant classic it’s been retroactively heralded as, but it’s a film I will undoubtedly go back to and watch again. It flies in the face of the previous 60 years of Westerns and the racism within them. Criterion’s release has some excellent extras, including new interviews with Mia Mask (author of Black Rodeo: A History of the African American Western) and Harry Belfonte’s daughter Gina. Poitier and Belafonte appear in archival episodes of Soul! and The Dick Cavett Show from when they were promoting the film, and there is some behind-the-scenes footage. It’s a shame Belafonte isn’t interviewed, but the guy is 95 and still out there fighting the good fight.