Black Folks Make Movies (Film Review)

The Bronze Buckaroo (1939)
Buck and the Preacher (1972)


Yesterday at the Micro Mini Cinema on Main Street was the monthly Black Folks Make Movies (BFMM) program. Held on the third Sunday of the month, BFMM extends its mission to examine and reclaim black film history. The founder of BFMM, Pam Thomas, introduces the films and leads a brief post-film discussion.

Yesterday’s double-feature started with the 1939 Western Short, The Bronze Buckaroo, featuring an all-black cast including our hero and singing Cowboy Bob Blake, played by Herb Jeffries. The film is a very low budget, low-tech affair, especially if you compare it to big box office hits of the year like the Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind. But even compared to lower budget “white” Hollywood westerns made that year, The Bronze Buckaroo is behind the times.

Ms. Thomas said Herb Jeffries wanted to make The Bronze Buckaroo and his other 3 cowboy movies because a black child walked up to him and said he couldn’t play cowboys and Indians like the other kids because there were no black cowboys. Wanting to see themselves represented on the screen was a huge impetus for black filmmakers. According to Wikipedia, from about 1915 to the early 1950’s, 500 or so films with all black casts aimed at black audiences were produced. And forgotten. About 100 remain as no effort was made to preserve them, nor was there wide-spread interest in doing so as there has been for more mainstream movies.

Even at 53 minutes, The Bronze Buckaroo takes a bit of effort for a modern viewer to watch because of the quality of the print and the quality of the sound. The plot is forgettable and the acting is wooden. But in 1939, when black audiences saw the film at specially timed segregated showings, none of that mattered. (It’s available on You Tube.)

The second film was Sidney Poitier’s 1972 directorial debut, the western Buck and the Preacher, co-starring Poitier as Buck and his real-life buddy Harry Belafonte as the preacher. The film is about black families looking for their post-Civil War share of land out west, and the white supremacists trying (and mostly succeeding) to turn them back to their home states. Based on real, and nearly entirely forgotten history of ex-slave families, the movie has a lot to say about humanity and racism. The two leads set out to help a wagon train of black families reach their destination safely, using any means possible. They are smart, resourceful, and heroic in their journey. Coming just three years after Newman and Redford’s big hit movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Buck and the Preacher with their good natured banter and anti-hero vibe was called Butch and Sundance with a conscience.

With a rousing soundtrack by jazz great Benny Carter and a winning performance by Harry Belafonte, the film is still an easy-to-watch Western that’s indicative of its time, and still (unfortunately) contemporary in it’s social criticism.

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