While some miss the mark, movies and TV showing the diverse West are having a renaissance

By Lauren Gilger
Published: Tuesday, December 26, 2023 - 10:10am

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Smiling woman in tan shirt and book cover
John R. Legg and Penn Press
Author Alaina Roberts and her book.

If you’re paying attention to pop culture right now, it certainly seems like Black cowboys are having a moment. From the recent Paramount+ hit "Lawmen: Bass Reeves" to Netflix’s "The Harder They Fall," our image of who was a cowboy in the Wild West is expanding.

Alaina Roberts is a historian who studies intersection of Black and Native American life and author of the book "I’ve Been Here All the While: Black Freedom on Native Land."

Roberts spoke with The Show about how some efforts are more successful than others, and more about the historical figure Bass Reeves.

Full interview

ALAINA ROBERTS: Well, Bass Reeves is an African American who is enslaved in the 1800s. And then toward the beginning of the Civil War, he escapes from his owner. He learned several Native American languages as he's kind of on this journey to freedom. He becomes familiar with the geography of Texas and what would become Oklahoma then called Indian territory.

And he really kind of is representative of the many African Americans and Native Americans who are kind of traversing this very diverse western space.

Yeah. Yeah. You wrote in this piece, a line about him that I thought was really interesting, and I'd love to hear you expand upon a little bit, which is that he was able to straddle multiple worlds. Tell us more about that.

ROBERTS: Yeah. So I think maybe people don't understand that native Americans are still very present in North America going into the early 1900s and obviously still today.

And so being able to learn, for instance, Creek, language Seminole language, and being familiar with Native people and learning kind of their cultures and the way to kind of connect with them was very important to anyone who was in kind of Western spaces where they would encounter Native people.

So this character in particular, but also Black cowboys in general have been sort of having a moment. I mean, cowboys in general have been having a moment with "Yellowstone" and sort of Western wear. There's a lot going on there, but tell us a little bit about the way in which you're seeing Bass Reeves in particular represented, it seems in multiple shows.

ROBERTS: Well, I think for most people, when they realized Bass Reeves was kind of somewhat important historically, it was Netflix film "The Harder They Fall."

That film a few years ago was very important in bringing together all these kind of important Black historical people like Cowboy Bill as well as Bass Reeves, you have Stagecoach Mary, lots of people who come from different parts of the West, Oklahoma as far as Minnesota, the Plains, who have kind of different portions of history and that they were important and as travelers, as trappers, as guides and kind of bringing them together and giving people this overall view of Black Western life.

Tell us a little bit about the multiple places you're seeing, not just Bass Reeves, but Black cowboys and sort of stories of the Black West in general right now.

ROBERTS: Gosh, there's been so many. "Surround" with with Letitia Wright was kind of glossed over it. It was straight to streaming.

There was "Outlaw Johnny Black" this year, which was really kind of all of the Western tropes.

It was a revenge narrative, it had kind of Blaxploitation, violence as well, comedy.

And then of course, Bass Reeves, there is "The Lone Ranger" a few years back, which Bass Reeves is really actually kind of drawn upon or using his life as inspiration for.

So you talk about representation here and about some, you know, criticisms of particular shows. We're looking at "Lawmen Bass Reeves," this particular show that's out right now on Paramount Plus. But also as you mentioned before, it is a good thing, this kind of representation, right? But some efforts are more successful, it sounds like than others.

ROBERTS: Right, and actually, what I should have mentioned is, "Watchmen" from 2019, the show on HBO, was I think a great example of doing that right. And that it showed, first of all Black settlements in Oklahoma, a space of the West. But also how Western African Americans also suffered from discrimination, the type that we often associate with the South, but unfortunately, it was very widespread. You have the Tulsa race massacre. And then you also have kind of the sci-fi aspect of "Watchmen" bringing into focus how racial relations really hasn't changed that much in our modern day.

So I want to ask you lastly a little bit about what this means. Like this moment that seems to be happening where we're seeing more representation of this. You sort of say we're not there yet, it sounds like, what are you hoping for? What are you looking for?

ROBERTS: Well, Bass Reeves, I think is good and that it gets, you know, the name out of this really important person who is kind of, as I've said, representative of many different African Americans throughout time.

But the way it discusses his life story is kind of putting him in this box of, well, what does it mean that this African American man is kind of a figure of the law when in fact, he like broke the law when he freed himself. And I think that's an important question for people to think about when thinking about slavery and how, you know, horrific it was.

But there's so much more when we look at, you know, for example, why do we even think of the West as a lawless space? It's because Native nations were not allowed to police the white people and their boundaries. Like if they had been respected as the separate sovereign governments, they were and had been able to prosecute white people committing crimes in their spaces, then it wouldn't have in that way. Like there wouldn't have been the degree of murder or sexual assault and et cetera that there was there.

Wow, that's so interesting. So that the intersection there is one we don't even talk about. Do you think, or do you hope at least, that through these kinds of, you know, representations in pop culture or TV, or whatever it may be, like that we are coming to a better or at least a slightly more accurate version of, of a, of a depiction of what the quote unquote Wild West was like?

ROBERTS: I definitely think that we are, we're getting close. I mean, the amount of like movies about and, or written by or directed by native people or shows with native representation is amazing. Like this is definitely the Native American renaissance.

And so yes, you have things like "Killers of the Flower Moon" like, you know, directed obviously by a white person. But what the story that I think is really trying to get into how Native people themselves experienced, you know, colonization, white supremacy and then, you know, shows like ["Reservation Dogs"] that are kind of getting at the kind of micro histories and stories of like the average Native person today.

What about when it comes to African American history and Black history in the West? Is that even more overlooked in some ways?

I definitely think so. I mean, there has been much discussion on, you know, Twitter, various op-eds about, why is it that African Americans have been stuck in kind of the slave film? Why is that the story that we kind of see over and over again?

And I think Black Westerns are so attractive to people like me, but also, you know, the average American, because they want to see more, like they want to see the complexity of the Black experience and a Black identity that you can see in stories that the West allows for, in ways that stories about slavery don't.

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