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The Bronze Buckaroo

tn_bronzebuckarooIn North America, February is Black History Month. I mean, it’s debatable how real of a thing it is. Every year we note that black history oughta be taught in other months also, and of course you got the “why is it the shortest month?” jokes. The U.K. musta foreseen that, ’cause they have theirs in October. But really 28 days of Black History Month is 21 more than the original “Negro History Week,” which was celebrated in February because of the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. It was intended to encourage teaching about African-American history in schools, which I guess did not go over great when it started in 1926. But 50 years later an expanded month long version was officially recognized by the government. So suck on that, 1926.

I don’t know what goes on in the schools today, but in the world of grownups it seems like the month isn’t that meaningful to most people. It seems more common to see it used for flimsy, borderline offensive corporate promotions than for any kind of legitimate attempt to fulfill the goal of bringing awareness to aspects of American and world culture that don’t tend to get enough recognition.
Obviously I don’t believe in confining learning about anything to one month. Except maybe Christmas decorations. But in the spirit of the tradition’s good intentions I’m gonna use it as an excuse to educate myself a little bit. I’ve had it on the backburner forever to rewatch all of Spike Lee’s movies, and recently the WOLF OF WALL STREET “glorification” arguments had me wanting to re-watch MENACE II SOCIETY and BOYZ N THE HOOD as a study in showing vs. preaching. But I would feel like an asshole doing either of those things in February, as if I thought they represented the entire history of black film. But then again, how much do I really know about the subject outside of blaxploitation and those late ’80s, early ’90s breakouts?

I knew there had to be more to the history of black film than what I’m familiar with. I have to admit, if somebody says “black film” the first person that comes to mind is still Spike Lee. Then you got the more commercial ’90s guys, the Hughes Brothers and John Singleton. You have the DIY comedians like Robert Townsend and Keenan Ivory Wayans. Today you have Lee Daniels, Steve McQueen U.K. and Tyler Perry, a few studio guys like F. Gary Gray, and up and comers like Ryan Coogler, Scott Sanders, Ben Ramsey. This is hardly a complete list, but it’s probly longer than what alot of people could come up with off the top of their head. And these are interesting guys, but not enough to represent the entirety of the black experience, or more importantly to get past the expectation that they should try to do that.

So I did some reading. I was happy to find a whole world of black filmmakers out there that I had missed. This list is a good resource I found. Idrissa Ouedraogo (YAABA) is one of the most prolific African directors, for example. And there’s Ousmane Sembene (BLACK GIRL, XALA) and Djibrtil Diop Mambety (TOUKI BOUKI), both of Senegal. In the U.S. I forgot about arthouse and indie people like Haile Gerima (ASHES AND EMBERS, SANKOFA), Julie Dash (DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST), Carl Franklin (ONE FALSE MOVE), Kasi Lemmons (EVE’S BAYOU). And I definitely gotta get up on Charles Burnett, whose KILLER OF SHEEP has been recommended to me a million times and which I promise I will see soon.

mp_bronzebuckarooBut of course this is outlawvern.com so if there’s a way I can broaden my horizons while also seeing some guns and punching then that’s gonna be my preference. So I decided that throughout this month what I’m gonna do is try to check out black action stars or filmatists that I previously didn’t know about or didn’t pay much attention to.

Did you know there used to be something called “race films”? You guys are aware of my affection for the blaxploitation era, and my respect for the DIY ethics of Melvin Van Peebles, Rudy Ray Moore and Fred Williamson. But they weren’t the beginning. We’re talking about as far back as the teens and through about 1950 there was a whole industry of movies made for black audiences, with all black casts. Some of them were even made by black producers, writers and directors. The novelist Oscar Micheaux started a company with all black filmmakers and directed his own movies starting in 1919.

These were mostly made outside of the Hollywood system, considered some of the first independent films. Despite segregation they sometimes played in white theaters, but mostly as matinees or midnight shows. So aside from dramas like the ones Micheaux made and Paul Robeson starred in, alot of them were typical b-movies, westerns and gangster films.

dukeellingtonquarterSo I took a look at some of these all-black westerns and the one that jumped out at me was THE BRONZE BUCKAROO, because the star, Herb Jeffries, was a singer who joined Duke Ellington’s band around the time of this movie. That puts him in an elite group of movie stars who know a guy who ended up on a quarter. Also it puts him in the then-popular category of singing cowboys, but coming from a jazz background. A cowboy with soul.

(This is actually Jeffries’ third singing cowboy vehicle, after HARLEM ON THE PRAIRIE and TWO-GUN MAN FROM HARLEM, but I chose it because it was on a collection called Treasures of Black Cinema hosted by Richard Roundtree. Also “The Bronze Buckaroo” became Jeffries’ nickname from then on, so it must be important.)

(And by the way, despite those titles I don’t think Jeffries is from Harlem. He was born in Detroit, anyway.)

Jeffries’ character Bob Blake dresses kinda like the white singing cowboys such as Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. The guys in his posse just dress like normal cowboys with plaid shirts and baggy, worn out jeans. But Bob dresses all fancy. A neatly tailored outfit, form-fitting, with decorative embroidery and shit. Pin-stripe down the side of the pants, tucked into the boots, big white hat, gloves, show-offy belt and holster. Actually, he dresses kinda like Cowboy Curtis. It’s a different vibe though, ’cause he has short hair and a neat mustache. More of a suave Cab Calloway type of look.

The story is pretty minimal, even for a movie that’s less than an hour long. Pretty Betty Jackson (Artie Young, who was later a dancer in mainstream movies like SKIRTS AHOY! with Esther Williams, but always uncredited) is upset that her dad got killed and her brother (who used to work with Bob) has gone missing. So Bob and the boys go looking for the brother, who we quickly realize is in trouble with some assholes trying to steal his land.

The boys don’t even have to do much tracking, they just go to a saloon and happen to get into a brawl with these dicks. One guy forces Dusty to smoke four cigars at the same time and Slim to drink fou shots at the same time. In separate glasses, but he’s not allowed to spill.

There’s a comedic subplot about how this guy named Slim Perkins (Broadway actor and lyricist F.E. Miller, who wrote another Jeffries movie called HARLEM RIDES THE RANGE) uses ventriloquism to trick Bob’s dim-witted buddy Dusty (Lucius Brooks of Jefries’ backup singers The Four Tones, who are all in the movie) into buying a “talking mule.” This is historically interesting because Dusty is a big dummy and does some of the kind of bug-eyed mugging that was a black stereotype of the time:

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But it’s different in this. In movies where a guy like this is the only black character it’s horribly offensive. But in this movie everybody else is black: the smooth hero, the beautiful damsel, the corrupt land baron, the thuggish enforcer, the bartender, the people in the bar, everybody. And keep in mind this is 1939. Over in the studio system the most prominent black role that year was Hattie McDaniel as a maid on a southern plantation in GONE WITH THE WIND.

In the context of this movie Dusty doesn’t seem so upsetting, he’s just a comic relief character. If it was today he could be Kevin Hart or Mike Epps or somebody doing a broad comedic role. It shows how we wouldn’t have to care quite as much about stereotypes if there was a wider range of representation. Then there wouldn’t be as much pressure for every performer or artist in a minority group to uplift and inspire their people every time. And if they wanted to joke around or put on a dress nobody would point fingers of shame at them.

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Also, by the way, Dusty gets to outsmart Slim at the end and kill the bad guy. Though he talks to his gun like it’s a person both before and after he does it.

Now, I should mention that there’s a tap dancing scene, and singing at the saloon. This is also touchy territory by modern standards since we know black entertainers at the time were pigeon-holed as minstrels dancing for the white man. But the thing is, this singing was what the white people were doing too. It was a requirement of the genre. These guys just follow the fomula, but arguably are better at it, or at least are able to do it in a different style. And since these movies were produced for black audiences they have none of the subtext of subservience. It’s just enjoying some music and dancing in the Old West. Cowboys gotta dance too, you know.

The singing could definitely be considered Badass Juxtaposition. It doesn’t take away from Bob’s manliness. There are I think the same amount of action scenes as musical. There’s a bar brawl with a boxing style square off, and a big messy shootout in the desert, bad guys up in the hills, people hiding behind rocks, bangs and puffs of smoke going off everywhere.

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If I had done more pre-rental research I would’ve tried to pick one of the westerns done by a black director and crew. I can’t find anything about the background of writer/director Richard C. Kahn, but it seems the production company, Sack Amusements, was a white-owned company that specialized in movies for black audiences.

Instead of Monument Valley it was filmed in Apple Valley, California on Murray’s Dude Ranch, which was owned by black businessman N.B. Murray. Jeffries filmed four westerns there, and it was also a popular resort, especially for black celebrities like Lena Horne, Joe Louis and yes, Hattie McDaniel (and also Clark Gable). It was later purchased by the actress and singer Pearl Bailey.

herbjeffriesOne thing that’s interesting about Jeffries, his mother was Irish and he had some French and Italian in him too. In modern photos (he’s still alive, and over 100 years old) he just looks like a white dude to me. In those days when it might’ve been beneficial to him to play up his whiteness he wanted to be in all black jazz groups, so he actually wore makeup to look darker.

Later he showed up on an episode of The Virginian, he directed a movie starring his burlesque  performer wife Tempest Storm, he showed up in the William Smith biker movie CHROME AND HOT LEATHER and the Jack Palance movie PORTRAIT OF A HITMAN. He was all over the place.

So in a way maybe my first attempt at a Black History Month themed review has already subverted the whole thing. Here is a black film pioneer who walked right across racial boundaries and defied categorization. He could play white or black, jazz or country. He recorded tribute albums to both Nat King Cole and Bing Crosby, for crying out loud. To me his singing cowboy songs sound more soulful than the white dudes were doing, but listening to him on Spotify right now I gotta say he sounds like a white lounge singer even doing the disco version of his hit “Flamingo.” He was a pre-post-racial singer and actor. The Vin Diesel of the ’30s, but with crooning instead of breakdancing.

Like Michael said, it don’t matter if he’s black or white. He’s Herb Jeffries, is the important thing.

Anyway, I’m glad to know about him and his movies now. Thank you, month of February.


This entry was posted on Friday, February 7th, 2014 at 12:47 am and is filed under Reviews, Western. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

32 Responses to “The Bronze Buckaroo”

  1. Which should I see first, this or PAINT YOUR WAGON?

  2. Not a fair question.

  3. Some years ago they were planning a version of THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN with seven (duh!) African-American actors. That’s something I would pay to see.

  4. Mario Van Peebles’ POSSE was an interesting failure in the black western genre. Interesting for being a rare attempt to spotlight the plight of blacks in the west. A failure cause it’s just not a very good story, or a very well made one.

  5. When I read “Herb Jeffries” I thought at first “What? Boomer from the original BATTLESTAR GALACTICA?!” But that was Herb Jefferson. I guess I’m racist.

  6. wow, this was very interesting, Vern

  7. Darren, and it had Stephen Baldwin in it.

  8. pegsman – say no more.

    And you just reminded me Baldwin was the whitey in FLED, chained to Lawrence(don’t call me Larry) Fishburne.

  9. Thanks for bringing this film to my attention, Vern. On a similar note, I’ve always wanted to see the Singing Cowboy Western Louis Jordan did.

    Can we use this space to talk about Black Westerns and/or prominent Black figures in the Old West? My favorite Black Western (outside of Django Unchained) is El Condor. It’s a really fun film with lots of action and nudity and none of that dour self importance that a more “proper” Black Western like Sgt. Rutledge has (while not being as incompetently made as the cheapies like Boss Nigger). There were a lot of great black cowboys and lawmen in the 1800s, but my favorite black figure in the Old West is Mary Fields: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Fields I’m about to start writing a screenplay loosely based on her that’s sort of like one of John Ford’s “community” Westerns (think The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance), except with a gun-toting, whiskey-drinking, cigar-smoking old black woman in the John Wayne role. I’d love to make the cinematic equivalent of something like The Liberation of Aunt Jemima, which has always been one of my favorite pieces of 20th century art (http://elementsoffierce.files.wordpress.com/2011/02/72_aunt_jemima.gif)

  10. Hey Vern, years ago I was binge watching a lot of films by Howard Hawks and John Ford, when I came across a Western / Court Drama by Ford called “Sergeant Rutledge”. It’s about a black Soldier played by Woody Strode, who is falsely accused of the rape and murder of a young woman. The Court Room – Drama is a bit stiff and cornball, but the black soldiers are shown as a proud and professional unit, and especially Strode comes across as a heroic figure.
    At a time when ” It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back” & “Fear of a Black Planet” where on heavy rotation at my home, this minor Ford Film moved me quite a bit.

  11. Damn, another solid review about a movie i otherwise might never have heard of.

    Vern, if you’re looking for some good stuff from African American filmmakers, you should check out Symbiopsychotaxiplasm by this dude William Greaves. Its gotta be one of the strangest, most wonderful experiments ever committed to film, years and years and years ahead of its time (maybe STILL ahead).

  12. Great piece, Vern. I never even knew this stuff existed.

    Also, Chester Novell Turner is a very oddball director who’s worth a look.

  13. I have heard of Chester Novell Turner. The Cinema Snob made a few vidoes of his works.

  14. Vern: I think there’s an error in the paragraph about the tap dancing and singing in the saloon. You wrote: “And since these movies were produced for white audiences they have none of the subtext of subservience”–I think you meant “produced for black audiences”.

    This was a great review, by the way. I love learning about this kind of stuff.

  15. Vern, your site is just the best.

    It’s fucking crazy how hard it is to get any interest in a “black”-centric property. I remember seeing a property float around Universal that focused on the Moulin Rouge Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. It had the potential to be a really great, really interesting “true story”/vegas noir hybrid. Man, I wish that movie would’ve gotten made, but the easy money appeal of franchise films just shut interesting projects like that down.

  16. Thanks for the suggestions and correction. I had considered POSSE and will keep EL CONDOR in mind. Feel free to recommend other movies for me to do (not necessarily westerns, but somehow action oriented and especially by black directors).

  17. I’m sure you’ve seen NEW JACK CITY Vern, with Wesley, but I noticed you don’t have a review here. It’s a Van Peebles joint again, like POSSE. I watched it again recently. Hadn’t seen it since the early 90’s when it was something of a highlight for black culture in films. It hit on the rise of drugs(crack) and gangs in New York circa mid 80’s, with some early roles for Ice-T and a really young, goofy Chris Rock as a crackhead.

    Remember how SCARY MOVIE made a joke about slasher films having THE TOKEN BLACK GUY? Well, NJC has THE TOKEN WHITE GUY, Judd Nelson. Yay! Poor Judd. Never mind.

    It also had an early reference to DePalma’s SCARFACE, the black gangsta’s gangster movie of choice.

    I might be wrong but I think Snipes played a cop in Abel Ferrara’s KING OF NEW YORK(which would make a good double-bill and contrast with NEW JACK).

    Also, I’m just kinda riffing here, Snipes played a drug kingpin character in BROOKLYNS FINEST(directed by black guy Fuqua), who probly would have been what his NJC gangsta grew up to be like if he had evolved through the 90’s.

  18. In the black bad ass historical figure category Bass Reeves is a personal favorite
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bass_Reeves

    There was a movie done recently, haven’t seen it, but he’s got some great legends and has a great look as well.

    “In addition to being a marksman with a rifle and pistol, Reeves, during his long career, developed superior detective skills. When he retired in 1907, Reeves claimed to have arrested over 3,000 felons. He is said to have had to shoot and kill fourteen outlaws to defend his own life.”

    He’d be a fantastic character for a western series.

  19. Vern, I would absolutely watch EL CONDOR. You gotta love a movie that has Lee Van Cleef as the funny sidekick. But in my opinion the best Jim Brown western roles are to be found in RIO CONCHOS and 100 RIFLES. The last one being one of the first movies to have a sex scene between people of different races (Brown and Raquel Welch). TAKE A HARD RIDE is also a pretty good Jim Brown western (with Fred Williamson, Jim Kelly and Lee Van Cleef).

  20. I’m going to suggest BLACK (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0990359/) again. The director is one of the whitest dudes you can imagine, but it stars a mostly Black cast, including French rapper MC Jean Gab’1 (prononced as the name of French actor Jean Gabin) as the titular character, and it is sort of a French hommage to American blaxploitation. It’s not all that great, some stuff seemed borderline offensive to me (of course there’s magic involved, because AFRICA!), but I still found it interesting, especially because it’s the rare modern French movie that’s not about a middle-aged philosophy teacher cheating on his wife with a 20-something student played by Mélanie Laurent (because that is seriously the plot of 95% of modern, not produced by Luc Besson, movies we make here).

  21. Major props on this review Vern. I’ve been on a bit of a Hammer horror kick lately. Been catching up with a lot of those movies within the past month or so since it’s been years since I’ve seen most of them. This review inspired me to make the next block of films I watch obscure westerns.

  22. This seems like a good time to recommend the podcast:
    http://www.blackonblackcinema.com/
    Which is a really fun and interesting listen, and covers a pretty wide range of films

  23. Great review, Vern. I don’t know much about the topic beyond the fact that “niche” movie markets existed in the early days of cinema, so I’m just going to sit back, listen and learn.

  24. Vern, badass Bill Duke is another black director/actor who might be good for Black History Month. I’ve only seen two of his directing efforts DEEP COVER and HOODLUM both with Laurence(not Larry, dammit!) Fishburne. Both were good, solid crime films. DC is contemporary while HOODLUM I think was set in depression era.

    He made another gangster one called A RAGE IN HARLEM(not seen by me) which have characters called Coffin Ed and Grave Digger, a reference to COTTON COMES TO HARLEM.

    And of course, Duke is a fine character actor also, supporting the likes of Arnie, and Carl Weathers in ACTION JACKSON.

  25. Duke also directed SISTER ACT 2, which is only noteworthy, because a supporting role is played by Germany’s most famous showmaster Thomas Gottschalk and I would KILL for some behind the scenes material of Duke directing him.

  26. Yeah, I was hesitant to mention SISTER ACT 2, since I was trying to appeal to the badassness of Duke, however CJ, you just made me aware his venture into the Musical/Comedy genre fits with the Theory of Badass Juxtaposition.

    Sorta like Clint going from THE DOLLARS TRILOGY to PAINT YOUR WAGON.

  27. I just checked Duke’s imdb and it’s interesting how he started (directing wise) as a buy TV director in the 80s, but stopped in 2003, just when the so called “golden age of television” began.

  28. Either that, or Touchstone gave him a wad of cash to make the thing.

  29. Ok, fuck. I’ll admit it. I liked SISTER ACT 2. It was more fun than SISTER ACT 1. I liked the gospel music. It made me feel good.

    Oh happy day.

  30. SISTER ACT 2 was worth making solely for the subtitle BACK IN THE HABIT. The opportunity to use that kind of outstanding nun-based punnery doesn’t come along every day.

  31. While SISTER ACT 3: KICKING THE HABIT was deemed too controversial for Touchstone, and subsequently canned.

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