I'm not trying to be a hero! I'M FIGHTING THE DRAGON!!

Posse

tn_posse“You talkin bout a black KKK raid on a white town? That’s crazy!”

Recently I wrote about the Mario Van Peebles movie PANTHER, and talked a little bit about that time in the ’90s after Spike Lee hit it big and other black directors were starting to get a shot. At the same time hip hop had bled into pop music, and therefore rappers were starting to appear in movies. In the few preceding years the most respected rappers had been political or pseudo-political. Public Enemy and Boogie Down Productions struck revolutionary poses, and even the so-called gangsta rappers like N.W.A. and Ice-T considered themselves rebels against the establishment (mainly the police, then the politicians above them). There had been a high commodity put on “dropping science” or “reality” and/or “positivity,” consciousness was encouraged, people had temporarily traded their gold chains for Africa medallions, were interested in reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X and knowing the names of the Black Panther founders and shit like that. For a time it was at least as important to act smart and enlightened as it was to be tough. And that’s why Van Peebles was able to make PANTHER and before that, in 1993, POSSE.

About six months before POSSE was released, Dr. Dre’s The Chronic came out, and it was so undeniably good that, you know, that was the end of that. But before Van Peebles knew that visions of blunts would be bouncing on hydraulics in our heads he made a western for the Knowledge Reigns Supreme era.

There’s a couple reasons why this fits into the trend. One of them is that about a quarter of the cowboys in the old west were black. TV and movies make it seem like it was a hundred white guys for every Cowboy Curtis or Lord Bowler, and Van Peebles wanted to correct that.

So here’s a movie about a group of Buffalo Soldiers who get screwed over by racist Colonel Graham (fucking Billy Zane) while fighting for him in Cuba. He assigns them to steal some Spanish gold and then accuses them of desertion so he can execute them. They make a run for New Orleans with the loot and he chases them.

mp_posseCheck out this posse, it’s a pretty respectable posse. You got Van Peebles himself as the leader, Jessie Lee, who refuses to execute a man but can easily shoot a cigar out of his mouth. You got Tiny Lister as Obobo, one of his rare good guy roles. You got 1990 American Music Awards winner for Favorite New Dance Artist Tone Lōc as Angel. And you got Stephen Baldwin (CUTAWAY) as Little J, a redneck white boy prisoner with bad teeth that Graham had put in charge of the black regiment to fuck with them. He’s dumb but too friendly to be racist. So it’s an all black group of heroes with a white sidekick!

To be fair there is also a black sidekick, Weezie (Charles Lane, director of SIDEWALK STORIES), who was Graham’s flunkie until he helped the posse escape. So he made the right decision but he talks in a squeaky voice like a cartoon character and has a hard time adjusting to not being subservient. Also he just doesn’t know how to play it cool – when they bathe in the river he points and screams about the size of Obobo’s junk. Man, don’t do that, Weezie.

Little J sits in on a poker game and ends up helping a flashy cheater named Father Time escape, kinda like how Don “The Dragon” Wilson met his sidekick in BLOODFIST. I think if Father Time was just some guy they would send him on his cheating way and never let him join the posse, but he’s played by Big Daddy Kane, so it’s a no brainer. Any posse could be improved with the inclusion of Big Daddy Kane!

This was Kane’s movie debut, and he didn’t do very many others. I guess he found that although pimpin’ ain’t easy, movie acting can be even harder. But we shouldn’t be surprised that they managed to get him in this movie because jesus man, everybody is in this cast. Isaac Hayes, Pam Grier, Nipsey Russell, Reginald Veljohnson, Aaron Neville, Bob Minor from COMMANDO (also stunt coordinator), and somehow even Stephen J. Cannell, the creator of The A-Team show up in small roles. That’s one thing you could count on Van Peebles for back then. He knew every damn person in Hollywood and could get most of them in his movies.

Anyway, Jessie has been a good posse leader, but he’s also pretty crazy. They have no idea he’s leading them on a revenge mission. He talks like he’s haunted by literal demons, but it’s actually memories of racists that fucked over his dad, King David (Robert Hooks, TROUBLE MAN). He gets a blacksmith to melt down some of the gold and make it into bullets, which actually work on both demons and racists. The latter is proven when he puts one into the blacksmith, who we find out was one of the people who lynched his dad.

This is where the black consciousness really comes in. They’re headed for Freemanville, the all black town founded by his father. His old friend Carver (Blair Underwood) is the sheriff now, but he’s a sellout who’s colluding with the white lynchers who run nearby Cutterstown. “King David and Jesse let dreams get in the way of thinking, Bates. Jess don’t understand straight business. I do.” They want Jessie Lee so they can prevent any possible father-avenging plans, and they want Freemanville so they can run a fuckin railroad through it.

But it takes some doing to rally the people of Freemanville. There’s a big crowd scene where they argue about whether to protect themselves or play nice to appease the white folks. Melvin Van Peebles, playing one of the old timers again, yells “No justice, no peace!” like he’s trying to start a chant. Before long somebody will be asking “Can’t we all get along?” while the Cuttersville bigots are shooting at them with a gatling gun.

I think there are some issues with pacing throughout this movie, but once it gets going at the end it’s pretty great. Paul Bartel shows up as the mayor. Richard Edson (though he was the non-racist brother at Sal’s Pizzeria) is the dumbass deputy who lets the KKK in to the jail to shoot Melvin and some other prisoners from Freemansville. Too bad it’s actually the posse under those hoods. Whoops.

Van Peebles does a good job of framing himself as an iconic action hero. He makes great entrances. There are beautiful shots of him in silhouette, sometimes casting a big cowboy shadow on the wall.

still_posse3

still_posse2

There’s one where he’s standing in a cool pose as the camera swoops around him, and suddenly his horse runs by and he nimbly jumps onto it and rides off. Done in one shot. That must’ve been hard to plan and pull off. But his most badass moment is riding a horse in slow motion while firing a gun and carrying a lit stick of dynamite between his teeth.

still_posse1
If that’s too bombastic for you how ’bout the scene where Melvin and Mario both have their shirts open to show they’ve been working out, and Melvin is smoking a corn cob pipe, shooting at triangular targets like Klan hoods? That’s hard to beat.

I think the title is actually significant. This is sort of about the ’90s concept of the “posse” as your group of friends who look out for you. That’s what this is more than the western use of the word, which would apply more to the Klansmen and corrupt cops that are after them.

This time the script is not an MVP joint, it’s written by Sy Richardson (an actor who played Petey Wheatstraw’s father and was in several Alex Cox movies) and Dario Scardapane (now a writer and producer on the American version of The Bridge). But it’s got that MVP spirit. The other bit of ’90s consciousness is deeper and more thought provoking than “there were black cowboys.” POSSE ends with text that ties the movie to a very big historical concept that’s still very relevant. In order to control the land and make money off the railroad and shit, the people of Cutterstown had laws that stopped descendants of slaves from voting. Even though there was no longer slavery they had to keep them down somehow, so they punished them for being related to slaves. They had to stop them from owning land or getting educated in order to maintain the white power structure.

POSSE ends by saying “Today, approximately twelve percent of Americans are African-Americans. However, that twelve percent owns less than one-half of one percent of America’s wealth.” People today like to say, you know, that was a long time ago, that wasn’t me, let’s move on. But as the end of POSSE points out, it doesn’t really matter if we’re all the most enlightened white people in the world going around hugging all races if the remnants of the old racist ass system are still preventing us from starting out on equal footing. It’s a concept alot of people still don’t get, so maybe they shoulda seen POSSE.

On a more positive note, Woody Strode appears in a wraparound story as an old man who was inspired by having met Jessie when he was a little kid. So hopefully positive things can also be passed on from one generation to the next.

(Reginald and Warrington Hudlin play reporters interviewing Strode’s character. Reginald later produced DJANGO UNCHAINED. So he did Jessie one better.)

Fittingly, the end credits song is by Intelligent Hoodlum, a lesser known participant in that conscious rap I was talking about (who was later known as Tragedy Khadafi). I thought at first it was gonna be what we used to call a posse cut (a sort of all-star team-up approach to a rap song), but no such pun. Anyway it plays over highlights from the movie intercut with footage from the 1939 films THE BRONZE BUCKAROO and HARLEM RIDES THE RANGE to show the forgotten history of black cowboy movies. I was pretty proud of myself for being able to identify THE BRONZE BUCKAROO. Thank you very much. This montage is cool though because number one, it acknowledges that there were tons of black westerns before POSSE, it’s just that they were made in a segregated film industry and are a somewhat buried chapter of cinematic history. Number two, it made me realize that maybe casting Tone Lōc and Big Daddy Kane as cowboys isn’t as goofy as I initially thought. After all, Herb Jeffries got cast in his westerns because he was a popular singer with the Earl Hines Orchestra.

I gotta say, this one is a little better than I remembered. It’s no DJANGO UNCHAINED, but I respect it.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Monday, February 16th, 2015 at 1:05 pm 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.

26 Responses to “Posse”

  1. I haven’t seen this and don’t have anything to say about it, but I thought it would be a good place to mention a preview I saw this weekend for another unorthodox western that looks really good. I’m not really sure how unorthodox it is because it looked like a pretty straight up western, but it’s written by, directed by, starring and about Danish dudes, starring Mads Mikkelsen and one of our favorites, Eva Green. It’s called THE SALVATION. Has it been discussed on here already and I just missed it? I hadn’t heard anything about it before seeing the preview, but I guess it’s been out in other countries for awhile now and it’s got a US release date of last fall. It’s coming here next month and it looks badass.

  2. This also has that sweet super-slo-mo shot of one of the gold bullets flying towards ultimate vengeance, right?

    Van Peebles pulp polemics, while kind of crude sometimes, were very effective consciousness raising efforts. They certainly had a positive affect on me as a white, British teen in the 90s. Through things like this (and especially New Jack City) he did a great job of offering a different perspective on genre staple plot-lines, characters and cliches – whilst still delivering entertainment that satisfied the needs and expectations of those genre’s fans. Which is rare.

  3. I’ll tell you what you do, you run down the street and tell the law that Father Time and the Outlaw Posse are in a killin’ mood ok?

    1 in 3 Cowboys were black, but if you watch tv, you’d never know that, In history the black cowboy was erased, Jesse Lee is gonna show you his face
    It’s the posse, shoot ’em up BANG shoot’em up – Intelligent Hoodlum

  4. I saw this in a Brooklyn movie theatre many moons ago.

    Gatling Gun fucked ’em up in the end. Oops… SPOILER.

  5. Nothing like a surprise The Adventures of Brisco County Junior reference to put a smile on this old face. I loved this movie as a kid, must return to it soon.

  6. Recently I saw van Peeble listed as director of an episode of ONCE UPON A TIME. That made me smile. Not in a “Ha ha, he is now directing cheesy network TV shows”-way, but in a “It’s interesting where our careers sometimes take us”-way.

  7. I won’t call it it a revival, because the western genre never really goes away, but thanks to YOUNG GUNS cowboy movies were for a short period cool even with the kids. POSSE’s one of the better ones. And you just have to love a movie where someone throws a heap of clothes on the ground and the hero gets THAT outfit.

  8. Great idea, cool poster, okay movie.

    Late 80s / early 90s wave of post-YOUNG GUNS action westerns: I guess that would include Young Guns, Young Guns II (Shot Down In A Blaze Of Glory), Posse, and The Quick And The Dead.

  9. CJ – I’ve seen a number of mid-level directors on television shows: John Dahl, Mary Harron and, of course, Neil Marshall. I’m glad these people are getting work, but I still kind of think that their talents are better used for feature length films. (Although, Neil Marshall has managed to carve out an identity on the small screen thanks to the fact that he’s now known as the guy who helms the big battle episodes on Game of Thrones.)

  10. Yeah, these days it’s really no shame anymore to direct (or act in) TV shows although those who you mentioned, usually go for (premium) cable shows. Although in all fairness, another ONCE UPON A TIME episode was even directed by Ernest Dickerson, who is of course these days THE WALKING DEAD’s go-to director for most important episodes.

    Honestly, TV director (for American TV. Or at least not German TV.) is one of my dream jobs. I’m sure I’m romantizing it a lot, but there is something challenging about just showing up on different sets for a week or two, having to deliver a good product that is in line what others did before you, in time and on budget.

  11. What if MVP had directed Fresh Prince in WWW?
    http://articles.philly.com/1996-08-23/news/25643751_1_minorities-movie-roles-black-folks
    “‘When I was a kid growing up, you didn’t have an opportunity to see any action heroes who happened to be black,’ Van Peebles recalls. `I was watching `The Wild Wild West’ [on television]. I was ignorant enough to think I could be James West.”’

  12. You should also review LOS LOCOS, the sequel directed by Jean-Marc Vallée (DALLAS BUYERS CLUB, WILD)!

  13. I haven’t seen this since back in the day. Might be time to revisit it to see if POSSE’s still got velocity.

  14. If I recall correctly, Woody Strode goes on and on about how cool the Colt Peacemaker was but the gun he’s actually holding is a Remington. Whoops. I’ve heard various figures about the ratio of black cowboys. The 1/3 figure has been bandied about, but I’ve also read that 1/3 of cowboys were black or Mexican, and I’ve read that the 1/3 of black cowboys only applies to Texas (I don’t imagine there were a lot of black cowboys in Wyoming or Montana). We also have to remember that “cowboys” were a particular group of people doing a specific job (driving cattle) and that years of romanticism have made people think that any frontiersman in the 1800s West was a cowboy. It would be like people a hundred years from now referring to everyone in the West coast as landscapers (do any of the characters in Posse drive cattle? I don’t remember). And cowboys were essentially landscapers in that driving cattle was a back breaking, low income job that only people that were ostracized from polite society would find themselves doing (which is why blacks and Mexicans flocked to it). Having said that, blacks are definitely underrepresented in Westerns and oftentimes when they are represented it’s done in an anachronistic way (see Morgan Freeman in Unforgiven). There were really all black communities and towns in the West, but they weren’t just black versions of generic Western towns (like in Posse) but closer to the black shanty town shown briefly in Gone With the Wind. Look up “Pap” Singleton and the Exodusters for more info in that regard. Also, I recall the rap song at the end mentioning Rufus Buck and his gang but they probably weren’t guys anyone who knows any history would want to celebrate seeing as they were pretty fond of raping and murdering. So yeah, Posse…I liked the idea but not the execution so much. Blacks in the Old West is a topic that has always fascinated me (like did you know that The Searchers is based on a black guy?) so I’m oftentimes more picky (loved Django Unchained and El Condor though).

  15. Having said that, I do still like the Intelligent Hoodlum song.

  16. For a long time American western directors seemed to believe that Woody Strode was the only African-American cowboy that existed. Or Jim Brown if they were pressed for money. THE LAST OUTLAW with Mickey Rourke and Dermot Mulroney is another early 90’s western that’s worth checking out.

  17. THE LAST OUTLAW is a good one. Vern already reviewed it: http://www.outlawvern.com/2010/07/16/the-last-outlaw/

    It hasn’t aged that great but I’m still partial to MAVERICK as far as 90s westerns go.

  18. That’s funny, even after looking at the review I have no memory of that movie.

  19. The Last Outlaw is fun for its over the top violence (the Buscemi face explosion!) but man what a lousy script (Eric Red’s screenwriting is only marginally better than his driving). Rourke has never looked more gross. What was with his eyebrows?

  20. Re: 90s westerns… I used to be kind of furious at THE QUICK AND THE DEAD, which between Raimi directing and this amazing cast of 90s potentates seemed would be the most amazing thing ever, and just turned out to be sort of goofy and okay. These days, with expectations lowered, I can accept goofy and okay.

    Re: conscious rap, etc… I think of anyone KRS-One most embodied this era. Sure, you had “Fight the Power,” but KRS-One was doing spoken word gigs and stuff, and his whole career seemed to be driven by this concept.

    Also, I’d like to direct your attention to a not as well known group, X-Clan. Their first album is pretty brilliant… to the degree that they were never able to recapture that lightning in a bottle. But it’s also a group/album that’s very, very a part of this time/movement/thing in early-’90s hip-hop.

  21. I think Mickey looking like Bette Davis only added to the menace of the character. And with all those bad guy actors in one gang you needed a really far out antagonist.

  22. “the people of Cutterstown had laws that stopped ancestors of slaves from voting”

    Vern, did you mean descendants of slaves?

    (I copyedit for a living, and find it hard to turn it off…)

  23. I really have to revisit this one. Haven’t seen it in over 20 years.

  24. Ha, thanks Curt. I don’t know why I always switch those two.

  25. Serious question: Why isn’t MVP2 making an amazing DTV blaxploiTAKEN movie right now?

  26. Mr. Majestyk – Total cliche, but TOMBSTONE for me.

    Blew my mind years back reading about the backstory to that movie, which had a rough time getting made. Kevin Costner was going to do this, but he had a falling out with the oriinal writer/director and instead made WYATT EARP and allegedly used his star power to try to keep studios/agents from getting involved with this because he didn’t want competition with WYATT EARP which came out around that same time.

    After the original director/writer got fired, Kurt Russell basically took over and apparently saved the shoot from getting cancelled. He got George Cosmatos to “officially” direct the film, when really Snake Plissken was giving the orders of what to shoot (thanks to the DGA’s “Clint Eastwood rule.”). The fact that the movie works in spite of all that is quite impressive.

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