Buck and the Preacher

Director: Sidney Poitier
Screenplay: Ernest Kinoy (story by Ernest Kinoy and Drake Walker)
Stars: Sidney Poitier (Buck), Harry Belafonte (Preacher), Ruby Dee (Ruth), Cameron Mitchell (Deshay), Denny Miller (Floyd), Julie Robinson (Sinsie), Nita Talbot (Madam Esther), John Kelly (Sheriff), Tony Brubaker (Headman), Bobby Johnson (Man Who is Shot), James McEachin (Kingston), Clarence Muse (Cudjo), Lynn Hamilton (Sarah)
MPAA Rating: PG
Year of Release: 1972
Country: U.S.
Buck and the Preacher Criterion Collection Blu-ray
Buck and the Preacher

Released amid the flurry of blaxploitation films that all but defined African American cinema in and around Hollywood in the early 1970s, Sidney Poitier’s directorial debut Buck and the Preacher went against the grain, rewriting one of Hollywood’s most storied genres—the Western—through the lens of neglected black history. Although the history books have long told us that at least one in four of the cowboys who worked the range in the late 1800s was African American, Hollywood Westerns had long told a very different story, one in which virtually everyone was white. Buck and the Preacher, which Poitier also produced alongside his friend, collaborator, and fellow star Harry Belafonte, was a means to correct that racial imbalance, which is what led Poitier and Belafonte to fire their initial choice for director, Joseph Sargent, whose take on the material (which was informed by his experience in television, including helming popular oaters like Gunsmoke) was insufficient to the cause. Thus, with Belafonte’s encouragement, Poitier took the directing reins himself, even though he had never helmed a movie before.

As it turned out, Poitier was a natural, and the rousing effectiveness of Buck and the Preacher as both entertainment and corrective history belies his inexperience behind the camera. The film was written by Ernest Kinoy (a veteran of ’50s and ’60s television anthology dramas) from a story originally concocted by Drake Walker and shot entirely in Mexico with a mostly Mexican crew (including cinematographer Alex Phillips Jr.). The story takes place in the years following the Civil War when thousands of newly freed slaves were making their way West to start new lives. Poitier, who had achieved immense levels of stardom in the 1960s after winning an Oscar for Lilies of the Field (1963), plays Buck, a former Buffalo Soldier who now works as a wagon master leading groups of black settlers through the harsh western terrain. There are numerous dangers along the way, the worst being bounty hunters hired by Southern plantation owners who attack the black wagon trains as a means of terrorizing the settlers and forcing them back South where they would essentially return to enslavement in the cotton fields. One of the wagon trains Buck is leading is attacked in the night by a gang led by a particularly ruthless bounty hunter named Deshay (Cameron Mitchell), who steals more than $1,000 the settlers had saved to start their new lives.

Buck is determined to not only see the settlers through on their journey, but also to retrieve the stolen cash. He is joined on his mission by his wife, Ruth (Ruby Dee), and by Belafonte’s Reverend Willis Oakes Rutherford, a perfidious “minister of the High and Low Order of the Holiness Persuasion Church.” With his rotten teeth, scraggly beard, and shaggy hair, Belafonte is virtually unrecognizable, at least to those who were primarily familiar with him as the smooth, handsome crooner of Calypso classics (Diahann Carroll once called him “the most beautiful man [she] ever set eyes on”). Belafonte had been acting in movies since the 1950s, but as Donald Bogle notes in his seminal critical history of black film Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, & Bucks: An Interpretative History of Blacks in American Film, the roles in which Belafonte had been cast tended to be safe and antiseptic, neutering his personality and sexuality, leaving him “strangely bland and innocuous.” But, in the unlikely role of Preacher, Belafonte “had discovered in himself, at forty-four, a rough-and-ready, gutsy quality that had vitality and delighted audiences.” To be sure, Belafonte is the best thing in the film, as he uses that gutsy vitality to great comic effect without losing the underlying drama of his character arc, which finds him moving beyond Bible-toting chicanery in favor of something genuine and meaningful.

For his part, Poitier is willing and ready to play the straight man in the film’s odd couple, although the intensity of Buck’s character marks a crucial shift for Poitier as an actor. The film also offers a unique take on the relationship between black settlers and Native Americans, as Buck must work with a tribe to ensure safe passage and eventually needs their assistance in fighting off the bounty hunters, who represent an existential threat to both groups. Buck’s standing with the tribe is complicated by the fact that he once worked as a soldier in the U.S. Army and is therefore at least partially accountable for the violence against them. And, while it is troubling that the film cast a white actress (Belafonte’s wife, Julie Robinson) as a native woman, there is a clear effort to align the struggles of African Americans and Native Americans in the shadow of a white power structure that wanted to own and obliterate them, respectively (at one point Ruth declares that she no longer wants to live in the United States because it is as if the ground has been poisoned, a stinging assessment of the damages wrought by systemic racism then and now). The decline of the traditional Western in the late 1960s and early ’70s had opened a space for revisionist takes on the genre such as Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969) and Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man (1970), and Buck and the Preacher belongs right there with them, being all the more notable for having been helmed by a black director, which had happened on a major studio production only a few times previously (the first being Gordon Parks’s The Learning Tree in 1967).

And, while it is tempting to see Poitier’s Buck as a trailblazing black protagonist, he is really part of a history that stretches back to at least the 1930s, when black cowboys were heroes in the margins of the Hollywood studio system. Harlem on the Prairie (1937) starring Herb Jeffries was billed as the first “all-colored” Western musical, and Jeffries went on to headline a series of low-budget, barely feature-length Westerns with all-black casts, including Rhythm Rodeo (1938), Two-Gun Man From Harlem (1938), The Bronze Buckaroo (1939), and Harlem Rides the Range (1939). Of course, these were light-hearted musicals, and it wasn’t until the 1960s that more serious Westerns included black faces, particularly Woody Strode in Sergeant Rutledge (1960) and The Professionals (1966). However, black actors were typically cast in marginal and supporting roles, which is what made Buck and the Preacher such a watershed moment in the history of the genre and why its triumphant ending with Poitier, Belafonte, and Dee riding across the range after having vanquished the white bounty hunters was such a thrill for black audiences.

Buck and the Preacher Criterion Collection Blu-ray

Aspect Ratio1.85:1
  • English Linear PCM 1.0 monaural
  • SubtitlesEnglish
  • Video interview with film scholar Mia Mask
  • Behind-the-scenes footage
  • Interviews with Poitier and Belafonte from 1972 episodes of Soul! and The Dick Cavett Show
  • Video interview with Gina Belafonte, daughter of Harry Belafonte
  • Essay by critic Aisha Harris
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateAugust 23, 2022

    The image on Criterion’s Blu-ray of Buck and the Preacher was scanned in 4K by Sony Pictures Entertainment from the original 35mm camera negative, and it looks great. The image looks exactly like a mid-budget Western from the early 1970s should look, without any artificial sharpening or noise reduction. There is a healthy sheen of grain throughout the film that looks wonderful in motion. The image is just a bit gritty and the color palette leans heavily toward earth tones (since much of the film takes place in the desert), but when strong primary colors do appear, they are natural and well saturated. Detail is good, and there are no obvious signs of age and wear. The original monaural soundtrack was remastered from the three-track dialogue, music, and effects track, with the original soundtrack negative used as a reference. The Linear PCM monaural track sounds very good for its age, with clear dialogue and good sound effects. The disc also includes a good array of supplements that make the case for the film’s important place in cinema history. There are two new video interviews: one with Mia Mask, author of Black Rodeo: A History of the African American Western, who discusses the film’s production, its place within Poitier and Belafonte’s larger bodies of work and political activism, and its critical importance to black representation on screen (25 min.), and one with Gina Belafonte, daughter of Harry Belafonte, who reminisces about her father’s career and his civil rights activism (15 min.). From the archives we get three appearances by Poitier and Belafonte on television: a 12-minute behind-the-scenes segment that was shot during the film’s production in Durango, Mexico, and originally aired in 1971 as part of the program The Great American Dream Machine; a full half-hour episode of Soul! from 1972 (which is prominently cited in Aisha Harris’s excellent essay in the insert fold-out); and an hour-long segment from The Dick Cavett Show in 1972.

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    Overall Rating: (3.5)

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