Monday, December 08, 2008

Outside-the-rotation movies blogging: Buck and the Preacher

Because, for a change, I actually have time to blog about something other than school or research:

[jogged by seeing a late-night cable broadcast of a film half-remembered, almost 40 years on]

I remember seeing Sidney Poitier's great anti-Western Buck and the Preacher, around 1971 when it came out. I was just a little kid, had barely seen Poitier's other films, and wasn't a huge fan of Westerns. And I don't think I'd ever heard of any of the other actors--at least not by name--with whom Poitier cast this tale of a black Civil War veteran ("Buck") who takes on the job of shepherding a group of "40 acres and a mule" former sharecroppers to new land in New Mexico, fighting their way past a bunch of ex-Reb cracker thugs who want to keep them off the land so they can be kept on as poor labor back in Mississippi and Arkansas.

And I don't know that I'd ever heard or seen Harry Belafonte in any other film or recording, but his gap-toothed, grinning, hat tipping, sashaying "Preacher" was easily the most charismatic character in the film. Over and over, in burlesque sermons in whorehouses and pre-gunfight throw-down confrontations, his liminal shuck-and-jive, I now realize, reaches back to ancient, ancient African-American--and African--trickster characters. I don't know where he got this character--whether he studied up for it, or got great direction from Poitier, or whether he just reached deep down into old memories, but it's fucking brilliant.

The film itself is dark and angry, and focuses on the (once again) age-old story of white folks trying to keep black folks poor and beholden, even after the War to Free the Slaves. It’s also a very clear allegory for the Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam 1960s, and conveys a very apt sense of paranoia about the extent to which the white power-structure was determined to use any means, from bent laws to crooked economics to violent confrontation, to make sure that people of color were unable to get their share of the pie.

It suffers from a syndrome particular to late ‘60s/early ‘70s Westerns (I’m thinking of things like Jeremiah Johnson, Little Big Man, and The Wild Bunch, for a start, but also earlier films like The Magnificent Seven, lesser works like The Professionals, and some of the Eastwood flicks of the period, to say nothing of the various “war”-films, Kelly’s Heros, M.A.S.H., Catch-22, which were similarly thinly-veiled comments on the late ‘60s), in which the allegory is laid on with a trowel. White cavalry are usually psychotic killers, white commanders delusional aristocrats, white women porcelain-fragile nymphomanics who Secretly Crave Dark Meat, white soldiers drunks or thugs, white merchants thieves and cowards—while black or Native American are downtrodden, articulate, courageous, family-oriented, cursorily eloquent, and so forth. Julie Robinson’s “Sinsie”, who serves as interpreter between Buck (an ex-Civil War cavalry sergeant) and the Apaches whose land through which they must travel, is almost impossibly regal, articulate, and remote—and looks more Italian than Native, at that. But the political/economic compromise she brokers between the black refugees and the Apache who will have to live with the consequences of any “aiding and abetting” is carefully nuanced and closely argued—and evokes very obvious analogies with the worldwide-alliance between minorities being preached by Black Nationalists in the USA and Marxist activists in the Third World—and which even had reached the streets of Europe during the Paris Uprising of ’68.

The “Messkins” in earlier things like The Wild Bunch were evidently still a permissible stereotype, though Eli Wallach’s magnificent bandit chieftain “Calvera” in The Seven managed to both embody, and transcend, the stereotype, especially in the masterful death scene (“You came back - for a place like this. Why? A man like you. Why?”), and the wonderful Maria Gomez as “Chiquita” in The Professionals likewise transcends the stereotype through sheer animal vitality.

But by the early ‘70s, most of liberal Hollywood had decided that the way to protest Vietnam was by searching existing genres for fairly-blatant-and-superficial allegories (that is, barely at all): earlier-war films and westerns being principle among them. It wasn’t ‘til after the ’75 bugout from Saigon that Hollywood had the guts to make films directly about Vietnam, with Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket, with the underseen masterpiece Who’ll Stop the Rain, still being the greatest examples. And none of these films were really written from a minority-member’s perspective (for that, we’d have to wait for Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssssssssss Song and the other blaxploitation epics).

In contrast, Buck is remarkable. It sports a solitary, spare soundtrack by John Hammond Jr, full of slide guitar, harmonica, jew’s harp, and the whooping and hollering Piedmont blues vocals he’d learned from Sonny Terry—not period-accurate, but wonderfully grainy and evocative, and whose lonely, monophonic sound parallels the grey starkness of the Southwestern landscapes in which they shot (the film obviously had almost no budget, and like other independent productions found imaginative ways to make the leanness of the budget part of the story’s look). The cast of bad-guys, led by Cameron Mitchell’s looming, Cajun-accented Johnny Reb veteran "Deshay," are effective heavies, while black character actors who make up the balance of the suffering, slogging-along wagon-train members, though they get very little screen time, sport some wonderful faces and looks, especially Clarence Muse's "Cudjo", in a nod to another ancient African name and archetype. Ruby Dee’s "Ruth" is rather under-utilized as Buck's helpmeet, but, given her prior experience and gravitas with black-originated films by Ossie Davis and others, she provides an effective sense of quiet-spoken ferocity—when Buck, the Preacher, and she rob a bank to get enough money to keep the wagon-train going, there’s no question that she’ll blow the head off anybody getting in their way.

Even the names of characters are apposite: “Buck”, the oldest stereotypical slave-era given name for a Big Black Man who embodied racist fears (and appetites), toting twin cut-down double-barreled shotguns to boot (the only more obvious play-to-white-fears was the twin-magnums-toting John “Shaft”), and “the Preacher”, the one character in Jim Crow-era black culture who typically could have been said to embody dignity and respect—which is precisely why (and how) Belafonte undercuts that Tom stereotype with his grinning, cackling, gap-toothed exploding-Bible-toting Holy Roller.

If Buck was the Elijah Muhammed Black Muslim figure in the film, then Belafonte’s Preacher was the Crazy Nigger—grinning and shuffling and sabotaging the White man every chance he got—whose archetype Richard Pryor was working out in nightclub shows in precisely the same period. Or, to put it another way, Buck was the Interlocutor, Amos, Frederick Douglass, Porgy, while the Preacher was Mr Tambo, Andy, Alfalfa, Sportin’ Life—all the way down to the present day, and the dynamic between Chuck D’s righteous scary wrath and Flavor Flav’s akimbo trickster.

I didn’t really know any of this at the time: though raised up in a leftist/activist household, where Dr King was idolized, school busing was celebrated, and Richard Nixon was hated with a bloody visceral passion, I still didn’t know it. How many white suburban kids, in 1971, were being taught anything about the depths of black rage, except in the absurdly-attenuated and –foreshortened venue of the television? This was almost 30 years before the Internet: even for a kid who read a lot, there was simply no way of knowing, in the suburbs, what was going on in the South Bronx or the Lower East Side (that would come, for me, just a couple of years later) or the South Side (a couple of years after that) or the 13th Ward (again, a couple more years) or the barrios of Laredo and Los Angeles.

But even at the age of 11, watching Belafonte’s Preacher sashay his way into a whorehouse card game, playing up the shucking-and-jiving “crazy nigger” stereotype and dissolving the white cracker slave-hunters with his comic sermon (an ancient strategy out of the minstrel shows), distracting them until the moment when Buck, framed from below, kicks in the door, shotguns at the ready, and growls “I’m Buck”—before these two black men, in slow motion, blow away an entire roomful of haters—I knew that this film was saying something about America in that “foul year of Our Lord 1971”, as Hunter Thompson put it, and about the rage of the world’s dark minorities, that an entire generation of white Americans had better goddamned listen to.

Thirty-seven years later, on the eve of the inauguration of President Barack Hussein Obama, in the faint, fading hope that he will be able to begin to repair the damage to our infrastructure, our society—hell, our very moral soul—wrought by the last 24 years of ownership-class rich white corporate fucks, I have to ask,

Were you listening, America?

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