Black Cowboys have been around for years but not necessarily earning the legendary status they deserved historically. However, in recent decades, Black Westerns have become more frequent in the film world. The intersectional topics that this revolutionary genre is bringing to light are changing up the film world.
The genre of Black Westerns didn’t actually emerge until the 70s–understandably, given the history of racism and exploitation in the film world.
In 1972, Buck and the Preacher was released. This Black Western film starred legendary and beloved Sidney Poitier (who also directed it) and Harry Belafonte. It was one of few westerns (if any at all) to really focalize a Black experience without the intention of exploitation, having racism and parallels to the Civil Rights movement at the forefront of the narrative.
While the reviews were split, the film, for its time, was quite a revolutionary moment–being set during the American Civil War (a time when many African Americans were seeking new lives) while also referencing the Civil Rights movement. Given the historical backdrop, many Americans felt these themes to be too controversial.
The Wild Wild West, a 1999 film loosely based of the 1960s (all-white cast) show of the same name, is not exactly a Black Western. However, it was among the first Hollywood films to really popularize the Black Cowboy Steampunk aesthetic when Will Smith hit the screens wearing a pinstripe vest, a bono hat, and steampunk shades (Shout out to the trailblazing steampunk fashion icons that are revolutionizing this aesthetic!).
The duality of Kevin Kline and Will Smith playing against southern bell, Salma Hayak, were a joy for audiences. More importantly, it was Will Smith that made attire of the 1600s look fashionable as it also intersected with Afropunk styles.
The film doesn’t make an attempt to skirt around the issue of race either, making references to racism and ableism in a way that is outrageous and taboo. This also makes the choice to have our titular characters ride off into the sunset (the classic caricature for westerns) on a giant mechanical tarantula, all the more satisfying.
Django Unchained was a huge leap forward for Black Westerns. Released in 2012, directed by Quentin Tarantino and starring an incredible cast that included Jamie Foxx, Kerry Washington, Christoph Waltz, Leo Dicaprio, and Samuel L Jackson, the film was an absolute box office hit.
Set in the time of slavery and accompanied by samples of Tupac, audiences went crazy for the handsome cowboy of few words who would go through hell and high water to rescue his beloved, Broomhilda von Shaft (played by Kerry Washington).
The exhilarating soundtrack, the exquisite throwbacks to western cinematography, the heart-wrenching writing, and the outstanding performances really made audiences grip the edge of their chairs. Even Leo DiCaprio himself was so involved in the process of his villainous character that he shattered glass with his palm.
The film touched on many harsh truths about the US’s troubled history of trafficking and didn’t hold back on brutality. While it is a film that is scarring, the writing manages to be heart-warming, comedic, and self aware, while setting the stakes incredibly high as viewers are witness to the unhinged history of slavery plantations.
Jamie Foxx’s rendition of Django and the supporting performances were standout in Tarantino’s Filmography.
To-date: Django remains Tarantino’s highest grossing film…and also his most meme-able.
In 2019, distinguished artist, Lil Nas X, decided to partner with Billy Cyrus on the track Old Town Road. It almost seemed spoof-like but the artist managed to popularize the country aesthetic, turning it into a modern alternative hip hop sensation that listeners found more relatable than ever. With an opening dialogue and cameo by Chris Rock, presentation of the song was quite self-aware and classic of the western genre–from cowboys running bank heists to square dancing.
When Lil Nas X is transported into a modern day Black neighborhood, the reactions of the residents are similar to viewer reactions but the song is quick to win over listeners and viewers, getting you up on your feet.
The song did quite well, going viral and making history but received criticism for “not being country enough”. The truth is that it was an intersection between country and pop, and the pop cowboy cross left a huge impression on the music world.
One film that really revolutionizes the Black Western genre with a hugely unique perspective is Concrete Cowboy. This look into the mending of a father-son estranged relationship that blossoms over the community’s love of horses and cowboy culture amidst gentrification moved audiences. The film was released in 2020 and received positive reception overall.
Based on a novel by G. Neri called Ghetto Cowboy, both the film and novel lend visibility to the real-life Cowboy community of Fletcher Street, Philadelphia and its life amidst the juxtaposition of city life and overdevelopment. This unique and majestic intersectional lifestyle is distinguished and noteworthy.
Starring Idris Elba, Caleb McLaughlin (Stranger Things), and actual cowboys from the real-life cowboy community–the film is a beautiful and hopeful coming of age tail that unravels amidst crime, cultural erasure, and disrupted family-life and will leave viewers pressing their hands to their chest as they well-up to the bitter-sweetness.
In 2021, The Harder They Fall starring Idris Elba, Regina King, Dewanda Wise, Zazi Beats, Edi Gathegi, Danielle Deadwyler, Jonathan Majors, and LaKeith Stanfeld was released. The film had a soundtrack that mixed Hip Hop and Raggae while showcasing the striking histories of real-life, famous historical Black Cowboys: Nat Love, Buck, Treacherous Trudy, Stagecoach Mary, Cherokee Bill and more.
The film touches on racism–drawing many parallels to modern-day issues– and it is among the first Black Westerns to talk about the histories of notable Black Cowgirl figures. It earned the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Motion Picture and many more.
Criticisms of colorism in the casting choices were deserved as some of the historical figures were not accurately represented by their respective actors. Nevertheless, the film performed quite well and was accompanied by an exceptional playlist.
With the premier song “The Harder They Fall” sung by Koffee, the opening , “Guns Go Bang”, being a collaboration between Kid Cudi and Jay Z, the soundtrack and accompanying visuals showcasing life among Black cowboys in the 1600s, and a mid-film cameo by Alice Smith singing “Wednesday’s Child“, the soundtrack was a standout direction and did a fantastic job of building the Black Cowboy atmosphere while setting it apart.
Without a doubt, Black Westerns are finally earning the notoriety they deserve. Whether through a stylistic approach, a modern exploration, or a historical window into the lives of African American figures during some of the harshest days in American History and we have every reason to be excited for what is to come in the revolutionary future of Black cowboys in fashion, music, and film especially.