Sidney Poitier’s Buck and the Preacher is revisionist western at its best

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With the upcoming release of Criterion Collection from Sidney Poitierit’s a brilliant western Buck and the preacherit’s essential to acknowledge the film’s groundbreaking overhaul of both the Western genre and the ’70s blaxploitation cycle. Centered around a tumultuous wagon journey led by the titular duo, Buck and the preacher interweaves a post-Civil War story of the “Exodusters” movement from South to West after the abolition of slavery into a tightly structured western adventure story.

Through the film’s depiction of the camaraderie between the core group of black migrants and the Native American communities along the trail, Poitier pivots the Western away from a “Manifest Destiny” fantasy storytelling space by highlighting the occurrence systemic racial oppression in the era of reconstruction. West. Otherwise, Buck and the preacherReversing the screen-centric stereotypes that pervaded blaxploitation cinema around the same time elevates Poitier’s film as a triumphant celebration of black culture and history, both in front of and behind the camera. Above all, Poitier’s towering central performances as Buck and Harry Belafonte as the preacher solidifies the specific revisionist bent of Buck and the preacherhighlighting its unique and influential place in the line of American Westerns.

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Ecstatic trills from the jazz legend Benny Carterthe mouth of the harp on the Traveler community’s introduction to the final freeze-frame shot of the titular characters and Ruby Deeit’s Ruth riding into the sunset, Buck and the preacher is positioned from the outset as a foil to the disillusioned Westerns of the friends of the late 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s. Fusing the common anxiety of The Wild Band with the playful humor and outlaw recklessness of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Poitier imbues his Reconstruction-era wagon train with a sense of New Hollywood enthusiasm without sacrificing the historical impact of his post-emancipation narrative. While peers in Poitiers viewed gender as a method to address contemporary social issues and political disenfranchisement, Buck and the preacher simultaneously wrestles with the painful past faced by black communities when traveling from the southern United States and comments on the persistence of systemic racism in the post-civil rights era. Boldly balancing historical responsibility with modern social critique, Poitier establishes his Western masterpiece as both a time capsule and a timeless adventure, flowing effortlessly between the genre’s entertaining shootouts and robberies and the prescient commentary of overthrow racist systems by any means necessary.


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In fact, one of the most compelling thematic threads in Buck and the preacher is the poetic use of action antics to embody the political revolution at the heart of the film. From the tragic ambush of the wagon camp by a group of white looters to the central sequence of an elegantly executed bank heist by the titular duo, Poitier deftly swings narrative control on a pendulum throughout the film, which effectively maintains suspense and emotionally investigates the historic struggle the “Exodusters” faced on their way to post-war freedom. In conjunction with the poetic use of action throughout the journey west, Poitier boldly avoids dialogue in many of the most pivotal sequences, including the aforementioned bank robbery and much of the bravery finale. , drawing attention to the atmospheric drones of Carter’s musical score. Rather than filling the film’s soundscape with the macho mumblings that have defined Western careers of John Wayne and Clint Eastwood, Poitier places physical prowess and quick wits above gender-typical male posture. By revising both racial politics and the patriarchal performativity of Western gender through an alternative use of action, Buck and the preacher brilliantly transcends the pitfalls that make many Western classics problematic relics.


Beyond Poitiers’ repoliticization of the West as a text of the post-civil rights era, Buck and the preacher also dismantles the stereotypical shortcomings that permeated many Blaxploitation hits of the same decade. Even like Buck and the preacher hire a fellow Robin Hood– “eat the rich” style narrative like movies like super fly and particularly Cotton comes to Harlem, Poitiers’ situation of the characters in a post-Civil War context distances the characters from the more contemporary stereotypes often imposed on black protagonists. By making Poitier’s Buck a stoic and steadfast classic Western hero and Belafonte’s Preacher a complicated and cunning trickster seeking retaliation, Poitier and his screenwriter Ernest Kinoy tapping into a deep well of Western archetypes to demystify the whitewashed West rather than applying negative stereotypes in a period setting. Additionally, Poitier emotionally anchors the film in Ruby Dee’s Ruth through her pivotal role in directing the wagon train and her strength in confronting Buck’s vulnerabilities along the way. By elevating Ruth’s strength and determination alongside the titular heroes, Poitier promotes an unprecedented portrayal of black femininity seamlessly in her post-war Western.


At the end of the day, Buck and the preacher functions as a vision of racial and cultural unity, culminating in the triumphant destruction of the plantation-owning raiders by the protagonists’ band of black fighters and Native American warriors. By portraying the groups of people who are typically oppressed in Western cinema as the subversive victors over the genre’s traditional heroes, Poitier subverts notions of the American West as a racially and culturally homogeneous space. Rather than ending with a wide shot seeing the heroes moving away towards the sunset, Buck and the preacher flip the camera to look at the titular duo as they walk towards the audience, implying that the journey towards racial equity and decolonizing American storytelling continues.

Although the conclusion of Buck and the preacher retains its power as an essential statement of black heroism as well as positive racial and historical portrayal in the present day, it is necessary to acknowledge the immediate influence that Poitier’s film brought to black cinema in the 1970s. Two years after the film’s release, Gordon Parks Jr. offered two similar exercises in subversive genre storytelling, the 1910s western film Thomasine and Bushrod and the buddy-centric political conspiracy thriller Three the hard way. Draw generically, tonally and even aesthetically from Buck and the preacherboth films served as additional springboards in the push for revisionist genre films by black filmmakers, nodding towards the socio-cultural power and cinematic prowess of Poitiers’ Western opus.

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