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  • Carrie Specht

Black Westerns on the Criterion Channel

As the civil rights movement gained momentum in the 1960s, leading filmmakers and stars sought to reshape the myths of the Hollywood western. Sidney Poitier, Gordon Parks, and even John Ford were among the directors who drew on the historical experiences of African American and Native American people to tell unexplored stories. The Criterion Channel now brings those films together this April to shine a light on the greatest stories of the old west you've never seen.

In the decades that followed the tumultuous 60s, Black actors, from Woody Strode to Ving Rhames, would repeatedly play key roles as cattle rustlers, cavalrymen, outlaws, and bounty hunters in bold revisions of the popular genre. Even Sidney Poitier broke with his well-established urbane image in his thrilling directorial debut, Buck and the Preacher, in 1972.


Featuring works by Mario van Peebles, John Singleton, and Gordon Parks Jr., this selection curated by guest programmer Mia Mask shows how the western aged and changed. It incorporated Blaxploitation (Thomasine and Bushrod), documentary (Black Rodeo), historical drama (Rosewood), and the coming-of-age film (The Learning Tree) as new generations of artists sought to broaden our understanding of the old frontier with new representations of what it was like to be black in a western.


When I think of Woody Strode I immediately think of two of his most prominent roles. First, Strode is unforgettable as Draba in Spartacus (1960), and he is most particularly memorable in his turn as the title role of Sergeant Rutledge (1960). These great performances were the precursors to additional John Ford films, The Man Who Sot Liberty Valance and Two Rode Together. Then came Strode's appearance in the ensemble piece, The Professionals and his insanely intense and menacing part in the opening showdown of One Upon a Time in the West. Because of these great performances and more, I'll watch anything with Woody Strode any time. If you want to see some good films with a great actor, then you will too.


Here is a list of the films and the directors who helmed them you can see on the Criterion Channel in the month of April:

Duel at Diablo, Ralph Nelson, 1966

The Learning Tree, Gordon Parks, 1969

El Condor, John Guillermin, 1970*

Skin Game, Paul Bogart, 1971

Black Rodeo, Jeff Kanew, 1972

Buck and the Preacher, Sidney Poitier, 1972

The Legend of Black Charley, Martin Goldman, 1972

Thomasine & Bushrod, Gordon Parks Jr., 1974

Posse, Mario Van Peebles, 1993

Buffalo Soldiers, Charles Haid, 1997

Rosewood, John Singleton, 1997