18 March 2009

BUCK AND THE PREACHER (Dir. Sidney Poitier, 1972, US)

It’s strange to think that this black western was made at a time when the Hollywood studios were capitalising on the unexpected commercial success of blaxploitation films like ‘Shaft’ and ‘Superfly’. Blaxploitation emerged at a time when Hollywood was experiencing one of its worst economic periods and America was going through a series of turbulent social and political crises. Some outspoken voices in the black community were quick to criticise the regressive stereotypes perpetuated by blaxploitation films. Though many of these films featured black actors in prominent roles and were directed by black directors, the financial success enjoyed by films like ‘Shaft’ was not shared by all those involved and Hollywood was merely exploiting the recognition that a black audience existed. A star vehicle for Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte, ‘Buck and the Preacher’ was also Poitier’s directorial debut. 1967 – 1968 had given Poitier an unrivalled box office position as Hollywood’s most bankable film star. Even though Poitier had managed to break into what was still considered a largely white institution, he was still limited by the types of roles available for black actors. Accusations of playing the dignified black man as somewhat passive and subservient to the demands of Hollywood narrative cinema overlook the reality of Poitier’s unique position. ‘In the heat of the night’, released in 1967, presented Poitier as a homicide detective in a role that would traditionally have been played by a white actor. The critical success of Poitier’s role as the iconic Virgil Tibbs seemed to silence even the most vitriolic of voices in the black community yet the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968 would bring a premature end to the civil rights movement. Poitier succeeded in paving the way for future black film stars like Denzel Washington and Will Smith.

Having consolidated his status as an A list box office draw, Poitier had naturally earned the right to make his move into directing and producing. Bearing in mind that blaxploitation was still in its early phase, it was still unheard of to find black directors being given a significant budget and supported by a major Hollywood studio to direct their first feature. The traumatic events of 1968 signalled a new era in black politics and the prominence of the black panthers fuelled the need for a belief in a brand of black militancy that was both politically explosive and partially segregationist in terms of its ideology. One could argue that Poitier had the option to make any kind of film project but the stark reality of Hollywood mainstream cinema meant that he would be discouraged from pursuing a project that was overtly political in fear of alienating a large segment of the white audience which regularly went to watch his films. Nevertheless, Poitier’s decision to make a film in a genre that continues to be dominated by a white hegemony was a daring one, especially considering that few westerns had been made at the time by Hollywood that featured a black cast and dealt with the issue of slavery, emancipation and race. The western genre is still an area that has the potential to offer black film makers with the chance to explore the history of America through a revisionist perspective. Yet the genre’s dormant status makes any studio nervous at the prospect of financing films that have no guarantee of succeeding with audiences anymore unless a major star is attached to the project.

Poiter’s 1971 revisionist western provides an emblematic example of genre anxiety in a moment of social crisis…the opening scroll presents the film as a tribute to people resting “in graves as unmarked as their place in history”…by calling attention to the erasure of black migration to the West from history books, the film announces its intention to make visible what has previously been invisible…'

American Studies: In a moment of danger, George Lipsitz, 2001
Chapter 8 – As Unmarked as their place in history: Genre Anxiety and Race in Seventies Cinema, Pg 187

Poitier’s 1972 film is a valuable and intriguing example of what is possible in terms of challenging the racial representations of Hollywood cinema. Poitier plays an ex-army trail guide who along with the reluctant assistance of Preacher (Harry Belafonte) helps a group of freed slaves to make the perilous journey west. On a superficial level, Poitier’s film is an effective example of reliable Hollywood storytelling but his skills as a director are uneven and rather flat. It’s also rather conventional and formulaic in how the film repeats certain elements of the western genre. What makes ‘Buck and the Preacher’ succeed most formidably is in the purely ideological agenda. Not only do we see Buck and Preacher legitimately massacre a room full of bigoted, white ex soldiers and ride away as outlaws, we also see genocidal sentiments shared by the black slaves and persecuted Native Americans. Ideologically, Poitier rewrites many of the social and political norms of the western genre and is no better expressed than in the final gun battle between buck/the preacher and a frenzied lynch mob in which our black anti-heroes overcome the oppressive tyranny of ‘the man’. Not many black westerns have been produced by Hollywood and Poitier’s film largely succeeds in addressing the absence of genre film making by black film makers and actors. With ‘Inside Man’, Spike Lee most recently proved that race should not be a barrier when it comes to taking on genres that have often been ignored or dismissed by black film makers because of their long association with tokenism and stereotyping. The distortion of historical truth and endemic misrepresentation of ethnic groups is something that must be contested indefinitely or else Hollywood will continue to rewrite history from a perspective that seeks to propagate white dominant ideology.

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