Yesterday marked the North American premiere of The Magnificent Seven, a movie that I’ve been looking forward to ever since I saw the trailer some months back. The reason for that is far more simple than you might have guessed: I’m a sucker for Westerns. A large part of that can probably be traced back to my playthrough of Red Dead Redemption back in college-
-but even before that there had always been something appealing about the clink of spurs, the arid desert heat, and towns that weren’t big enough for two particular individuals. That being said, I did with The Magnificent Seven what I do with everything I’m excited about, which is research it obsessively.
Eventually my search led me to a thread in /r/movies sharing the new poster for the film, which you can see on the right. Clicking on the image should help you get a better look at the titular cast of characters, and reveal an additional reason for my interest you might have expected me to be more upfront about.
Of the seven men four are people of colour.
Denzel Washington, emphasized by the number that outlines him, is bounty hunter Sam Chisholm and leader of the group. On his far right is Martin Sensmeier, of First Nations descent, playing Comanche warrior Red Harvest. Skipping past Chris Pratt on his left are Byung-hun Lee as assassin Billy Rocks and Manuel Garcia-Rulfo as Vasquez, a Mexican outlaw.
Now if there’s anything enthusiasm likes it’s company, and as I scrolled down through the thread seeing if anyone else shared my excitement for the film I came across this comment:
Yes, “The Multicultural Seven”, three words that while not particularly pointed were written ostensibly to call attention to the fact that this was a Western with a higher than expected number of non-White characters.
To give credit to /r/movies, the most upvoted replies to said comment defended the film’s diversity, with one redditor pointing out that: “You say that like its a bad thing. It’s not the end of the world for Hollywood to have diversity.” It was a refreshing change of pace, to say the least. While my faith in a portion of the internet was restored, at the same time I came across a sentiment that resurfaced time and time again, namely that this diversity was “unrealistic”.
At this point I could write a few paragraphs damning a subset of the moviegoing audience for being able to accept a movie that literally revolved around cowboys
fighting off extraterrestrial invaders–
-but not that people with different skin tones might be able to shoot bad guys side-by-side, but instead I’d like to focus on one particular qualm some had: the idea that a Black man might have authority on the American Frontier.
When first reading these complaints a single name came to mind, and thankfully there were others who were able to namedrop him before I ever had a chance to. The man I was immediately reminded of was Deputy U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves.
I first came across this legendary figure in a book I borrowed from Gordon entitled “Badass”, and the man pictured on the right lived up to that title and more. While you can read an excerpt from the book online, it’s almost more impressive to grab a pull quotes from the much drier Wikipedia article [all quotes having been properly cited]:
“Reeves brought in some of the most dangerous criminals of the time, but was never wounded, despite having his hat and belt shot off on separate occasions.”
“In addition to being a marksman with a rifle and pistol, Reeves developed superior detective skills during his long career. When he retired in 1907, Reeves claimed to have arrested over 3,000 felons. He is said to have shot and killed fourteen outlaws to defend his own life.“
A Mental Floss article specifically notes that Reeves, as “the first black Deputy Marshal west of the Mississippi [. . .] was authorized to arrest both black and white lawbreakers”, which should speak for itself. The thing is, even without this list of incredible accolades Reeves’ very existence spits in the face of the idea that Black men were without an ounce of authority in the 1800s.
For the sake of the argument let’s agree for now that Reeves was simply one man and move on. Certainly most of the townspeople, and obviously the cowboys themselves, would have been White, right? After all:Enter the BBC Radio 4 documentary “The Forgotten Black Cowboys” and an article calling attention to the show that reports [emphasis added]: “It is thought that, on some Texas trails, about a quarter of cowboys were black.” Even taking into the account that this is simply based on the research of retired history professor Mike Searles, let’s posit that this may be grossly inaccurate. Maybe it wasn’t one in four cowboys who were Black, but one is six, or even one in ten. Is 10% a proportion that has ever been seen in entertainment before?
The cyclical relationship of art imitating life and life imitating art becomes terrifying when it leads to historical negationism, or the “illegitimate distortion of the historical record”. The blinding Whiteness of Hollywood during the turn of the 20th Century and beyond meant that for decades Western films presented a singular vision of what that era looked like. While heavily romanticized and sensationalized, the truth remains that this was an actual time and place in history where real men and women lived and died. And no, these people were not exclusively White.
In the BBC article Searles made an observation that to call insightful would be putting it lightly:
“If something is not in the popular imagination, it does not exist.”
When we as consumers of entertainment are presented over and over again with a picture of what our history looked like that image gains its own kind of reality. While there is definitely something insidious about removing portions of our population from our conceptions of the future [which is what led to such movement as afrofuturism], that goes doubly so for erasing and altering the past. While certainly not the first of its kind [which is something we can thank Quentin Tarantino for] and not even a film I can guarantee as being good, The Magnificent Seven is doing its part to ensure that the Old West we see on the silver screen looks a little more like it would have [numerous explosions aside].