Posted by: dougery | March 28, 2012

My Year of Westerns, Part Six: Posse (1993)

I don’t often reference a movie’s poster, but why don’t you take a second look at that cast listing. Big Daddy Kane. Tone Loc. Stephen Baldwin. Billy Zane. To say this western has a rather unorthodox cast is, well, not so much of an understatement as a subterraneanstatement. But then again Mario Van Peebles’s  Posse (1993) is not like any western I have ever seen. Hell, its not quite like any movie I’ve ever seen. It is perhaps what The Wild Bunch would be if it had contracted a particular virulent form of Moulin Rouge with the latter’s frenetic energy and anachronisms filtered through Marx’s critique of capital by way of the slow, insidious evil of race relations in America at the dawn of the 20th century. Yes, it is all those things and sometimes the result is one big mess. But other times this film is a kind of schizophrenic genius.

There is quite a bit of levity in a film dealing with so much race, class, and politics. A kind of slapstick humor runs through the early portions, centering most often on Zane and Baldwin, which can’t be accidental. Peebles has turned the two most prominent white characters in his film into jesters or comic relief which is a nice reversal of the token black side-kick role which so often fills the same slot, and not just in Westerns. Baldwin’s Little J is a goof and fuck-up, and the MTV style jump-cuts (similar to say, the editing of Natural Born Killers) love finding his grinning mug and zooming in close on his gold tooth. Meanwhile Zane plays a corrupt colonel who wears an eye-patch through much of the film. He is in full-on ham mode, but that’s alright since almost everyone else is too. The ‘movement’ of the plot centers around Jesse Lee (Peebles himself) and his gang riding off with some Spanish Gold, and Colonel Graham in pursuit.

The film has an adept way of quoting westerns, of inserting references, particularly visual ones. There are just enough shots of the posse riding west through snow, etc. There is a poker game. A church raising (though if I remember correctly that one’s in a flashback). There are prostitutes and piano players, bat-wing doors, sheriffs, and Chinese slave laborers helping the railroad extend west. But all of these inclusions feel non-essential, like words in a conversation where everything important is conveyed through a subtle gesture here and a furrowed brow there.

At stake here is the following premise. That Blacks made up a much larger percentage of ‘westerners’ than are traditionally depicted in film and fiction, perhaps as many as 8,000 or one out of every 4  cowboys. Many of these were ex-slaves, and for one infinitesimally small moment it looked like blacks would get to participate in the taming and settling of the west. The town of Freemanville in Posse, is a kind of Black utopia, and one of the darkest themes of the film revolves around the railroad heading west toward the town, making the land soon to be very valuable indeed. Yet Bates, the white sheriff of the neighboring town of Cutterstown, strikes a shady deal with the his opposite number in Freemanville, Deputy Carver. Carver is going to run off with the deeds to all the land and split the proceeds with Bates. The black inhabitants of Freemanville who stand to become very rich will find themselves once again with their pockets turned out.

Peebles is arguing that the omission of Black cowboys is as much an issue of property and money as it is an issue of race. Even the bullets Jesse Lee has forged to kill ‘the demons of his past’ are made of gold. So as silly as some of the lighter moments of Posse can be, and these portions must contribute to the film’s poor grades from say, viewers on Netflix who need their westerns as dry and humorless as a bleached cattle skull, there is a lot of heavy, vital stuff stitched into the seams of this one that is too important to ignore.

Grade: Full House (10s over 8s)

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