Released 50 years ago today, Buck and the Preacher is a classic and iconic Western—brightly colored, beautifully assembled and channeling social issues through its plot rather than tacking them on in an obvious or distracting manner. Sidney Poitier’s directorial debut, Poitier stars as the able and intelligent wagonmaster Buck, who helps caravans of newly freed Black folks settle in the West of what the U.S. had laid claim to but hadn’t fully developed. Harry Belafonte played opposite him as the slippery but earnest Reverend Willis Oaks Rutherford, an opportunistic wandering pastor who’s not without honor or survival skills. Buck, a former Army man well-acquainted with the land and having a working relationship with the Native American population, is just a bit reminiscent of John Wayne’s Hondo. Belafonte’s Rutherford, on the other hand, utilizes patronizing stereotypes to deftly navigate danger and maneuver white-dominated spaces, representing the real-life need to acculturate and disarm while also figuring in one of the film’s pivotal action sequences. Buck and the preacher’s uneasy acquaintanceship settles into a utilitarian alliance, creating a little bit of buddy comedy atmosphere amid the Western’s mounting tension—focused on the resilience and survival of a nationless people in a lawless land.
Against the backdrop of a fictional Kansas (filmed in Durango, Mexico), the opening crawl sets the stage, letting the audience know that the film is based on the historical experience of the Great Exodus, where formerly enslaved people moved westward and were attacked by white folks that didn’t want them out there. Preceding the crawl is a montage of brown-and-white frontier photographs of Black folks in the mid-late 19th century. After the film transitions from the history-illustrating sepia-toned pictures into vibrant colors conveying a present story, urgency arrives in the form of a white posse led by a man in Confederate uniform intimidating the people that Buck just parted with. That man, Deshay (Cameron Mitchell) impresses upon the caravan that they ought to go back to the people and places they know, in the southeast.
He continues to chase Buck, as Buck’s next charges are from St. Anne’s Parish, Louisiana and Deshay wants them back there. Between Buck and the preacher first meeting and first riding together, Deshay impresses upon Rutherford a financial opportunity for catching or killing Buck, and tells him that he ought to preach that his people return to the South. Seeing the havoc Deshay and his men wreak on the Exoduster migrants, Rutherford forgoes their offer to help Buck and his caravan. Meanwhile, Sheriff Ollie’s (John Kelly) morals and accent represent a Northern influence in the town of Copper Springs where Deshay and his posse are holed up, warning the posse leader against harassing Black migrants. Still, Deshay and his men impoverish Buck’s people on a raid, forcing Buck and the preacher to the wrong side of the law, whereupon the sheriff is willing to recruit that same posse to bring the protagonists to justice. While the sheriff maintains his position that the civilians of the wagon train are to remain unharmed, he’s removed as an obstacle for the vigilante night riders. Buck, his wife Ruth (Ruby Dee) and the preacher eventually triumph over their assailants, but not before a final showdown.
Even before considering its themes, Buck and the Preacher is a technical success. First-time director Poitier assembled a film that moves very quickly, while never giving the audience reason to wonder what’s happening. Ernest Kinoy’s plot follows sensibly while still creating surprises. The material and moral stakes are tied up together logically and inescapably. The fear and intimidation that would be experienced as a newly freed person in a country full of people that question your humanity—in a place where there are so few structures that the morals of institutions hardly matter—is frequently animated. The camera never has to hold arbitrarily on specific instances of racist violence; a dead child or a brutalized woman are presented matter-of-factly while musical cues and the emotional and physical responses of bystanders deliver depth of emotion. And Buck and the Preacher is not bereft of joy or laughter, but filled with clever moments deftly arranged to lead right from humor to heartbreak. The camera never loses its purpose, the varying colors make the world seem alive even as fabrics fade from use and the music is impeccable. Guitars, harmonicas, banjos and drums build anticipation, foreboding and humor.
The major and minor characters feel authentic, the world feels real. Poitier and Belafonte play archetypal but never stereotypical in the characters they present. Belafonte especially encompasses a unique character, one who’s a little grimy and a little glorious. Poitier plays Sidney Poitier the way Denzel Washington plays Denzel Washington—the character’s role is elevated by the sophistication and dignity that the accomplished actor brings to the morally gray but honorable roughneck. The story and its setting have the emotional, historical and philosophical heft of their subject matter, but it’s easy to believe this movie takes place in the same universe as a dozen spaghetti or classical Westerns. These characters could ride into the sunset and end up meeting The Man with No Name or Doc Holliday.
Its robbery scene, a direct inspiration for The Harder They Fall, is incredibly smooth, though with enough friction to maintain tension. The final gunfight reminds me of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid: The preacher’s attempt to get himself in cover wedges him between a literal rock and a hard place with enemies on all sides. The film is never as bloody as a 21st century neo-Western, but in that climactic battle the bloodless violence relents to a limited use of squibs, heightening the realism and sense of danger. Our heroes prevail, but not without first making you wonder if they’d go out like the boys in Bolivia. Buck and the Preacher is simply a well-constructed film, and a seminal work in the Black Western genre.
I always knew cowboys were Black. The first movie I saw that could qualify as a Western was 1998’s film adaptation of Wild Wild West—the movie Will Smith famously turned down The Matrix to star in. I liked it as a child and I’ve had no reason to revisit it since my taste has improved. Still, since then, superior films such as Django Unchained, The Magnificent Seven remake and The Harder They Fall, for all their flaws and limitations, have continued reinserting Black African-Americans into America’s favorite historical period for self-aggrandizing myth. Buck and the Preacher precedes all of those; it even precedes the seminal Jack Arnold/Fred Williamson Blaxploitation Western Boss Nigger.
While representation in media isn’t the golden ticket to a people’s liberation—it is, after all, a tool enforcing acceptance of the status quo by making minority populations feel like the system can serve them—it’s still nice to see the marginalized in the center instead of the edge of the spotlight. Buck and the Preacher’s special meaning comes from being made in 1972, from being made by a Black man who would two years later be awarded an English knighthood and 37 years later be awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom. It feels like a movie made by a first-timer, but also by a man who was already a veteran of film.
Like Mario Van Peebles’ Posse and Jeymes Samuel’s The Harder They Fall, Buck and the Preacher is directly concerned with Black Americans’ struggle for socioeconomic self-determination in the wake of the Civil War. Buck’s partner, Ruth, is keen on going north to Canada because she has no faith that the U.S. will ever give Black people anything: “Not no 40 acres and not no mule. And not freedom neither.” She refers to the nation-state as being tainted by prejudice, calling it “a poison soaked into the ground.”
Yet Buck and the Preacher knows that that poison is a tool; Deshay and his nephew Floyd (Denny Miller) both refer to not wanting to lose their way of life and not wanting lands in Louisiana to go fallow. The film situates its story within the real and often overlooked history of Black people attempting to migrate west. Agents of southern planters, who wanted their labor force back, harassed and intimidated. Buck and the Preacher centers the material components of racism and white supremacy, casting the emotional and psychological as consequences or sub-tools rather than an end or the most important factor. It is a means to maintaining an economic relationship, a status quo of cheap labor. Buck and the Preacher is about the routine violence necessary to maintain this labor relation and the excesses allowed of the people that enforced it. It’s also about the ways intransigent despots can overwhelm well-meaning people in the power structure, in whatever few instances those people exist. A white sheriff intending to discipline Deshay’s posse is killed for trying to draw a line between those in the wagon train and the newly minted criminals, Buck and Rutherford.
Buck and the Preacher also takes on the complicated relationship between Black freedman settlers and Native Americans in the claimed-but-untamed West, though sidestepping the Native American holding of enslaved Black folks. While Buck twice strikes a bargain with the chief of the local tribe (Enrique Lucero), the chief refuses to arm Buck’s people. The guns are too hard to come across; they need them for the war he is fighting, and the war that his children will fight, against the white man. When Buck tells him that they have a common enemy, the chief reminds Buck that Black men fought with the “yellow hair” against Indians. All Buck can say is that he isn’t with the U.S. Army anymore. Eventually, though, the chief decides to let a few members of his tribe (played primarily by Mexican actors) help Buck and the preacher. Either moved by their valor or pitying their likely deaths, they intervene from afar with rifles, to much gratitude. It’s exemplary iconography—people of all races making common cause against those that wish to exploit and destroy us.
My only real complaint about the excellent Buck and the Preacher is that Poitier and Belafonte didn’t team up for a sequel. The film didn’t meet Columbia Pictures’ expectations, so they canceled Poitier’s multi-picture deal. But the film’s legacy lives on through the subgenre it helped create.
Kevin Fox, Jr. is a freelance writer, editor, and critic. He is a former Paste intern with an MA in history, who loves videogames, film, TV, and sports, and dreams of liberation. He can be found on Twitter @kevinfoxjr.