His portrayal of Bass Reeves is earning him rave reviews amongst critics but for the actor, whose extensive credits include “Red Tails,” “The Butler” and “Selma,” bringing the story of a Black Cowboy to the screen was an insurmountable task.
“We went out with it in 2015. The entire industry said, no. The excuse then was no, because no one’s doing Westerns. Then we went out in 2017. They said, no, because everyone’s doing Westerns. It wasn’t until just before Covid that we started getting some traction again,” Oyelowo shared at a recent press conference.
Black Cowboys don’t play a part in the popular narrative and this anthology series, which reveals the untold story of the most legendary lawman in the Old West, follows the journey of Reeves (Oyelowo) and his rise from enslavement to law enforcement as one of the first Black U.S. Deputy Marshals west of the Mississippi. Despite arresting over 3,000 outlaws during the course of his career, the weight of the badge was heavy, and he wrestled with its moral and spiritual cost.
“This is the hardest thing I have ever done, and I’ve done plays which tend to be particularly hard, especially if you do classical plays. This was incredibly physically demanding; it was a 5 to 6 month shoot in incredibly inclement weather. We found ourselves shooting on a plantation where 80 people had been enslaved back in the day, and those were very hard days. You could feel the ghosts of that and the thing that kept us going was paying homage to, not just this man, but this history.”
Jesse James, Buffalo Bill, Billy the Kid, and Butch Cassidy are legendary personalities in American history with their exploits immortalized in novels, films, but stories about Black Cowboys have gone largely untold.
“This guy should be up there with Billy the Kid, and he isn’t and wasn’t,” agrees Oyelowo. “There are fairly insidious reasons why that’s the case, but that’s where my obsession to correct that began. And that became the 8-year journey towards this moment that we’re in right now.”
Chad Feehan serves as creator and executive producer on the show which also stars Lauren E. Banks, Demi Singleton, Forrest Goodluck, Barry Pepper, Grantham Coleman, Donald Sutherland and Dennis Quaid. The cast also includes Shea Whigham and Garrett Hedlund as guest stars, and, in recurring roles, Joaquina Kalukango, Lonnie Chavis and Tosin Morohunfola.
“I loved Westerns like ‘True grit,’ ‘Unforgiven.’ But when you realized that one in four cowboys was Black and that was almost never represented, I found myself having quite a problematic relationship with Westerns, because they then started feeling like a lie. A projection of an imagined West as opposed to the real West.”
Episodes 1-6 of “Lawmen: Bass Reeves” are now streaming on Paramount+.
Samantha Ofole-Prince / Photos Courtesy of Paramount