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Lawman: Bass Reeves–A Truthful  Western

This true untold story about the first Black  US Marshall highlights Lawman Bass Reeves responsibilities for law enforcement in the Oklahoma Territories including Native lands.  One of the most legendary lawmen in the Old West, Lawman: Bass Reeves (David Oyelowo) opens with  Reeves heroically fighting in the Confederate army alongside his Texas slave owner on the eve of Reconstruction. 

Despite  brutal circumstances and the lawlessness of racists and prairie vigilantes, Reeves struggles to be  a man with integrity in the face of immoral institutions.  Crisis after crisis in conscience  torments him as an officer of the law administered by White men who had enslaved him and who wish to retain the White privileges of slavery.  And everything that could go wrong, does.  His loving and equally fearless wife (an electrifying Lauren Banks) is both loyal and critical of the sacrifices Reeves has to make in order to support his family of six.  To survive in an unjust and often lawless world, Reeves has sworn to  represent the rule of law and social justice.  But there is a hesitancy, a suspicion, and a guardedness to Reeves working among White folks.  The judge who deputized him in 1875, Judge Isaac Parker (Donald Sutherland), is trustworthy…or is he?

Bass Reeves is forced to outsmart not only the outlaws he has warrants to arrest, but also the criminally unindicted lawmen and landowners with a vested interest in the status quo.  His own assistant is a Choctaw.  Adeptly negotiating for the marginalized who deserve justice and the imprisonment of the powerful who are  unscrupulous, Reeves is a wonder to behold:  a Black US Marshal who arrests former slave owners who still lynched and committed other heinous hate crimes with impunity.  He also defies societal norms and  frees Black and Native men brutally held as property in the light of post-Reconstruction, casting an ominous shadow on the pending Jim Crow era.

This is one of David Oyelowo’s finest performances in a filmography that is  outstanding.  Impressive in communicating emotions through  the pain in his eyes, or the love that relieves his soul, Oyelowo is supported by an exemplary  supporting cast, particularly  Lauren Banks.  Dennis Quaid, as a morally compromised sheriff, Donald Sutherland as Judge Parker, and a host of other actors make  Lawman: Bass Reeves  a deftly paced Western that does not step over the bounds into lecturing or polemics.  This is a film glorifying a sharpshooting posseman who far outwits his enemies and also his purported allies.  For fans of Westerns, this one is a necessary addition to the Western cowboy and Indians mythology.

Availability:  Paramount+

Note1:  Bass Reeves was the inspiration for the television series, The Lone Ranger, together with his “Indian” sidekick, Tonto, but the series was whitewashed and Bass Reeves’s historical prominence was “lost”.  

Note 2: Judge Isaac Parker, nicknamed the “Hanging Judge”, presided over the largest US criminal court at that time.  He hired Reeves because of his linguistic fluency in Native languages.

Note 3: Lawman: Bass Reeves is based upon the 2006 biography, Black Gun, Silver Star, by Art T. Burton and The Bass Reeves Trilogy by Sidney Thompson.

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