Wednesday 28 October 2009

Buck and the Preacher (1972)

Director: Sidney Poitier
Stars: Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte
A western would seem to be a strange thing to become Sidney Poitier's directorial debut, westerns not generally being great opportunities for persons of colour, but then that was probably the point. Anyway, he never intended to be a director. Harry Belafonte, a major name in music but not in film, found the story and talked Poitier into using his substantial clout to get it made. They co-starred and co-produced but found that the original director wasn't meeting their requirements so Poitier took over. Their aim was very much to tell a story of relevance to black America, set in the years after the Civil War when the slaves had been freed but the promise of land and freedom hadn't quite materialised. There were a lot of stories that haven't been told, as suggested by the dedication of the film: 'to those men, women and children who lie in graves as unmarked as their place in history.'

We find out pretty quickly what we're looking at. A black wagonmaster named Buck transports a host of former black cottonpickers west from Louisiana, people who are looking for a new place where they can live their own lives as their own people. Of course it isn't quite that simple. Just passing a law doesn't make people believe in it, and just leaving one place doesn't mean that other people don't want to bring you back. Sure enough, a confederate soldier called Deshay and his nightriders burn their encampment down, murder a number of them in cold blood, even slice open their bags of grain and shoot their pigs and chickens. It's all to get them to turn around and go back to Deepsmith County where they came from, to work the fields for white folks once again.

And what's more, they're after Buck and they want him really bad, $500 dead or alive sort of bad. They know his name and his face and they lay a trap for him, but of course he escapes. When he's played by Sidney Poitier and his character's name is in the title of the movie then he isn't going to fall for the first trap that's set for him, that's for sure. He escapes, on horseback at high speed, and runs into the other half of the title: Harry Belafonte as the Preacher, the Revd Willis Oakes Rutherford of the High and Low Order of the Holiness Persuasion Church. Got to love those denominations. Rutherford is as silver tongued as you might expect and he has bizarrely capped teeth to help the effect. When we first see him he's as naked as a jaybird washing in a creek and Buck steals his horse, given that it's rested and he has to ride fast.

Poitier plays Buck stern and stoic. We don't get to see much emotion on his face though we know what he must be feeling. He's a driven man. By comparison Harry Belafonte is a lot more obvious as the Preacher. He's what Buck calls an easeman, someone who's there to fleece any congregation blind he can find and move on to another, aided to no small degree by the gift of the gab. He tracks Buck down, running into Deshay and his men first. We wonder if $500 is enough to tempt him to turn in one of his own, but after he sees the corpses of the children that the nightriders leave behind them, his jaw is set and his bright twinkling eyes uncharacteristically solemn. There's nothing like a set of massacred children to polarise the sides.

And polarised they are. We don't meet a white man in this film that isn't anything less than a villain until fully halfway through the 102 minute running time, when we meet the sheriff of Copper Spring which Deshay and his men are using as their base. This isn't Louisiana, he says, and that's a pretty deep statement. The sheriff is a gruff man but an honest one and he has no gripe against folk of any particular colour. After Buck and the Preacher rob the Copper Spring bank to restore funds stolen by Deshay, the sheriff chases after them for the sake of justice, but he still has no grief with the wagon trains. Unfortunately he's it for the movie. He's all the white race has to offer.

The Indians are treated pretty well, though we don't see too much of them until the end. They only appear in one scene before that, but a strong one where Buck, accompanied by a wide eyed Preacher, bargains for safe passage for his people with Sinsie, the woman of the chief. This scene and a similar later one work superbly, with fascinating bargains, important politics and some of the real depth of the plot. The plight of the two races is overtly compared but there's also a strong highlight of their differences. The enemy of my enemy is not necessarily my friend. Intriguingly Sinsie is played by Julie Robinson, who has been married to Harry Belafonte since 1957, so no wonder he's wide eyed. She does an excellent job.

As a primarily black film, of course the black population in it is shown in a favourable light, but it's a little too one sided for my liking. There are no black villains here at all and very few with weaknesses, they're merely downtrodden folks trying to find a new life for themselves given that the one they've been promised hasn't showed up. There's rarely more to them than that. The leads are at least shown to have a dark side (no pun intended), but while they do bad things they do them for good reasons, without us really being set up to judge them. While the Preacher is a conman, we're obviously intended to see this pair as having a higher calling or a destiny that's been laid out for them, perhaps by Cudjo's bones.

At least I think that's Cudjo who rolls the bones, because it's the only character old enough to be Clarence Muse, an important black actor from at least a generation before Sidney Poitier. Born in 1889, he was well into his eighties here, so old that I couldn't recognise him. He'd still have four films and seven more years to go before he bowed out with The Black Stallion, 68 full years after his first appearance in 1921's The Custard Nine. The earliest I've seen him was in Frank Capra's Dirigible in 1931 but I know him well from precode horrors and mysteries like White Zombie, The Death Kiss and The Mind Reader. He was a versatile talent, as the last film I saw him in testifies: another early horror movie, Black Moon saw him sing, something he was more than capable than doing for a living. He also appeared in films like Show Boat and Porgy and Bess. He wrote too, but primarily he served as something of a template for Poitier: never quite as successful but nonetheless very important indeed. It was people like him who set the stage for people like Poitier and films like this.

As lead actor, co-producer and director of the film, Poitier obviously had a huge impact on it and it's a good one. His direction is more than capable and he's gone onto direct other films, though he's never broken through as a director the way he did as an actor. His work behind the camera here serves to give the picture an identity and a meaning. This isn't a black western like say, The Terror of Tiny Town was a midget western, it's merely a western, and while it wanders into cliche territory on occasion it's generally told very well. For all its focus on black migrants after the Civil War, it works better as a western than many so called classics that I've seen. It stands up very well today, merely a little too black and white, pun very much intended that time.

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