“The Untold Story of the Wild West”
Director: Mario Van Peebles
Cast:Mario Van Peebles, Stephen Baldwin, Charles Lane
Synopsis: A group of mostly black infantrymen return from the Spanish-American War with a cache of gold. They travel to the West where their leader searches for the men who lynched his father.
I guess this one has to go down as a missed opportunity. The prevalence of black cowboys in the old West is a sorely overlooked aspect of the Western; the only black cowboys that come to mind prior to Posse were Woody Strode and Sidney Poitier, so director and leading man Mario Van Peebles appeared to have tapped into a rich vein. Unfortunately, his screenwriters Sy Richardson and Dario Scardapane immerse this aspect in a routine story that stubbornly refuses to come to life.
Peebles plays Jesse Lee, an infantryman in the Spanish-American War who, with Little J (Stephen Baldwin), is tasked by his vain commanding officer Colonel Graham (Billy Zane) with acquiring a cache of Cuban gold coins. When Jesse and his mates get their hands on the gold, they decide to skedaddle back to the States, and when they’re waylaid by Graham and his men, they blind the officer in one eye during a gunfight. Back in the States, Jesse leads his men on a trail of revenge over the men who killed his father (Richard Roundtree), a visionary man of peace who established the town of Freemanville.
The storyline of Posse only addresses the problems experienced by blacks in the West in passing, choosing instead to focus on Jesse’s revenge mission, which is never particularly interesting. It begins poorly, with a sketchily explained battle scene. It gains a little momentum with the formation of Jesse’s posse and some antics in New Orleans, and for a while it looks like it’s going to shape up into one of those rambunctious knockabout comedy-dramas. But once the posse rides into Freemanville, things suddenly judder to a halt, which is ironic really as this section is probably the part which explores the black experience in the West with more accuracy than the exploits of Jesse and his men.
Van Peebles’ directing is never more than adequate at best, and he gives his leading man — which just happens to be Van Peebles — all the best shots. He decks himself out in a cool full-length leather coat and bolero hat and treats the audience to lingering shots of his buffed muscles or chiselled features while interesting character actors like Pam Grier and Isaac Hayes are pretty much relegated to the status of extras. Van Peebles also makes the fatal mistake of blending 1990s language and attitudes with characters from the 1890s, and has a barroom chanteuse warbling a soul number which really takes the viewer out of the moment. Subject matter like this needs a director like Spike Lee who, for all his faults, at least knows how to hold a film together and can be relied upon for a little more historical accuracy.
(Reviewed 12th August 2012)