POSSE is a thoroughly traditional Western in all respects but the most obvious: its cast is almost entirely black, and the specifics of the story touch on the frontier experience of black cowboys, settlers, soldiers and merchants. The story, however, is conventional to the point of cliche,
with handsome, laconic loner Jesse Lee (Mario Van Peebles) and his posse of outcasts righting an unforgivable wrong, the murder of Lee's preacher father (Robert Hooks) by Klansmen.
POSSE opens in Cuba, during the Spanish-American War. Lee, a reluctant but exemplary soldier (we later learn he was sentenced to lifetime army service in lieu of hanging for the murder of one of the Klansmen), runs afoul of preening, cynical, utterly hateful Colonel Graham (Billy Zane). Graham
sends Lee, the black soldiers under his command and a white outcast, gambler Little J (Stephen Baldwin), on a suspicious mission behind enemy lines. Lee quickly realizes they've been set up, discovering a massive chest of gold for which Graham intends to kill them. With the fortuitous help of
Graham's fast-talking, self-serving factotum Weezie (Charles Lane), who in a pinch chooses loyalty to his fellow black men over cowardly acquiescence to oppression, they escape to the States.
Graham, wounded by Lee and sporting a dashing eye-patch, catches up to them in New Orleans. The group loses one member, Angel (Tone-Loc) and gains another, a gambler called Father Time (Big Daddy Kane), before heading West with Graham and his colorful killers hot on their heels. The destination:
Lee's home town, a struggling black settlement called Freemanville. One by one, Jesse tracks down and kills his father's murderers, and in the process uncovers a plot by Sheriff Bates (Richard Jordan) of neighboring Cutterville to incite a race war that will deliver Freemanville--which lies in the
lucrative path of the railroad--into his hands. Matters come to a head when Bates beats Little J to death and kidnaps Papa Joe (Melvin van Peebles), Jesse's mentor. Jesse and his posse organize Freemanville's citizens to defend the town from impending attack, and Bates, Graham and the rest of the
villains get what's coming to them.
POSSE aspires to amend the widespread misperception that the Western frontier was entirely won by white men (and lost by whooping savages, though that's mostly another story), a deeply ingrained part of the Western myth revisionist filmmakers have been exposing and undermining for decades.
Though this blanched image of the past wasn't created by movies, they've helped perpetuate it, so it's easy to see the appeal to screenwriters Sy Richardson and Dario Scardapane and director Mario van Peebles of using the medium as a corrective. That said, POSSE doesn't break much new ground.
This is hardly the first black western. One can discount the race movies of the 1930s and 40s, from HARLEM RIDES THE RANGE to THE BRONZE BUCKAROO, on the fairly valid grounds that they were marginal productions aimed at segregated audiences, and had no broad-based effect on the cherished icons
of the West. But the Blaxploitation era of the 70s spawned several revisionist Westerns featuring black casts and concerns, including THE LEGEND OF NIGGER CHARLIE and its sequel, THE SOUL OF NIGGER CHARLIE, and BUCK AND THE PREACHER. And since the 60s, many mainstream Westerns have included black
characters in deference to historical fact; so black actors in the saddle, if not the norm, are an accepted part of the revisionist Western landscape.
What's most remarkable about POSSE is how desperately conventional it is beneath its black skin, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the character of Lee, played by director Van Peebles. Glowering beneath his broad-brimmed hat, sweeping through the plains in his battered duster, Van
Peebles physically resembles no one so much as Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name, the amoral hero of Sergio Leone's A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE, and THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY. But Lee's roots go back still further: he's a man with a moral mission, an avenger whose heart is as
pure as his gun is swift. Lee deplores the mistreatment and exploitation of Indians and Chinese railroad workers, kills the men who murdered his father and leads the oppressed residents of Freemanville to stand up for their rights. Though the second half of POSSE owes a great deal to Eastwood's
cynical 1973 film HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER (even the sporadic flashbacks, in POSSE to the killing of Lee's father, in DRIFTER to the murder of the town's paternal sheriff, are strikingly similar), Lee is a strikingly uncomplicated hero, resolute, fair, charismatic, ethical, and, of course, handsome.
As director, Van Peebles doesn't miss a macho gesture, an iconic glance or a familiar situation; for every visual surprise--like the sight of black faces emerging from beneath the camouflage of Klansman's sheets--there's a scene built around a card game, shoot out, campfire conversation, honky
tonk saloon or race across the plains in which John Wayne would have felt right at home. In a reverential framing scene, two young black filmmakers (played by Warrington and Reginald Hudlin) interview an ancient black cowboy (played by Woody Strode, who appeared in several films for John Ford and,
later, Leone) about the truth behind the legends. But despite this and other gestures toward authenticity, POSSE remains no more than a pleasant genre diversion with unrealized ambitions. (Adult situations, profanity, violence.)
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