AFRICAN AMERICANS IN WESTERNS

   While African Americans populated much of the historical West, they were largely neglected or relegated to submissive roles in Western cinema for most of the 20th century. The early silents of D. W. Griffith portrayed African Americans as brutes incapable of containing their lust for white women. The Birth of a Nation (1915), while not specifically a Western, represents Griffith’s racist attitudes. Later Westerns develop the role of the comic Negro, a racist caricature that remained in Westerns through the 1950s. Some films were produced, however, with predominantly African American casts and marketed to African American audiences. Herb Jeffries, the Bronze Buckaroo, made a career as an early African American cowboy star.
   African Americans were demeaned in early Westerns mainly through racist stereotyping. Atypical stereotype was the loyal servant who wanted to be cared for by white people and who performed only menial tasks. This character was naturally funny, childlike, self-deprecating, and always cowardly. Other African American stereotypes were singers, dancers, entertainers, and loyal, dependent servants illequipped to care for themselves. In films set following the Civil War, these characters were often former slaves who voluntarily stayed on the plantation to serve just as they had before the war. Any African Americans who were sympathetic to reconstruction were depraved, savage, and uncivilized. Of course, these characters also had heavy dialects and were highly superstitious.
   One example of how unexamined racism drives the plot of a Western is in The Lonely Trail (1936), starring John Wayne and Ann Rutherford, where an elaborate network of plantation servants (former slaves happy to remain around) is in place to warn the white Texas landowners of the approach of the reconstruction police. When the vicious police arrive, the servants jump up and begin dancing and playing the harmonica and banjo. It was no doubt very funny to original audiences. As with other cultural issues, race issues have often been treated indirectly in Westerns. Cavalry Westerns of the 1940s and 1950s, such as John Ford’s Cavalry Trilogy, often made oblique comments about black and white racial tensions by addressing issues between various white ethnic groups. Unfortunately, these Westerns usually displaced the racism with the different ethnic groupings banding together in their oppression of, for example, the savage Apache. As the civil rightsmovement got underway in the United States in the 1960s, Westerns began to revise the role of African Americans, and notable African American actors began successful careers. Woody Strode in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) played a transitional role as faithful yet still respected companion to Tom Doniphon (John Wayne). Later he played strong characters in Sergeant Rutledge (1960) and The Professionals (1966). Ossie Davis in The Scalphunters (1968) played a conventional role as a runaway slave paired with a white mountain man, but instead of a black-white friendship, the racial antagonism is pronounced and racial tension is emphasized.
   Revisionist Westerns have repeatedly attempted to recognize the legitimate historical role of African Americans during the Western moment, just as the role of Native Americans has been reconsidered in Westerns of the period. During the 1970s, a series of “black” Westerns appeared, such as Duel at Diablo (1966) ; The Red, White, and Black (1970) ; The Legend of Nigger Charlie (1972) ; and The Soul of Nigger Charlie (1973). Sidney Poitier, a prominent civil rights activist as well as actor, directed Buck and the Preacher(1972), starring in it along with Harry Belafonte and a nearly all–African American cast.
   Perhaps the most important transitional moment in the history of African Americans in Westerns occurred in Mel Brooks’s Blazing Saddles(1974) through Cleavon Little, who as sheriff subverts, comically, most previous stereotypes of his race. The popularity of the film and the memorable comic scenes did more to change the public’s attitude toward race than any other Western. The last decades of the century saw, with mixed success, attempts to integrate African Americans into the historical Western moment as naturally as they had been perceived in contemporary U.S. society. At times, color-blind casting has simply ignored racial differences. Nevertheless, the dominant role of African Americans in Westerns has always been as “racial others.”

Historical Dictionary of Westerns in Cinema. . 2012.

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