By Ty Burr
Updated October 22, 1993 at 04:00 AM EDT
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Adios Amigo

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The way it starts off, you’d think Posse (1993, PolyGram, R, $94.99) was going to be a documentary. An aging black man, played by the venerable actor Woody Strode, sits among mementos of the past and descants on the place of the African-American in the Old West. ”People forget that almost one out of every three cowboys was black,” he says. ”But for some reason, we never hear their stories.”

That’s only a partial truth. The fact is, the black Western has been reinvented a number of times over the years, with each reworking reflecting—intentionally or not—prevailing trends in black consciousness. As mirrors of cultural self-image, these films are remarkably telling: semiotics in the saddle.

The first bona fide black cowboy star rode into view during the 1930s, at the tail end of the Harlem Renaissance. Herb Jeffries appeared in five sagebrush sagas, including The Bronze Buckaroo (1939, Nostalgia Family, 503-523-9034, unrated, $24.95). Written and directed for the independent ”Negro circuit” by Richard C. Kahn (who was white), Buckaroo is something more than a novelty and something less than a good movie. The plot has cowboy Bob Blake (Jeffries) winning the girl (Artie Young) by saving her brother from an evil land baron-but the twinkle in the movie’s eye lets you know that, on some level, conventions are being sent up. You sense it in the hot jive number ”Payday Blues” that the star and his pardners sing, in the silly comedy routines that seem lifted straight from black vaudeville, in Jeffries’ droll delivery of lines like ”C’mon, boys—let’s hit leather!”

One of Buckaroo‘s most dated aspects is its color scheme. Jeffries (who is half-Italian) is lanky and light-skinned; heroine Young is, in the words of film historian Donald Bogle, ”light, bright, damn near white”; and the chief villain is played by dark-hued Spencer Williams. That social coding may reflect cultural tastes of the time, but it was one of the first things to go as the postwar civil rights years evolved into the Black Power movement of the late ’60s.

Buck and The Preacher (1972, Columbia TriStar, PG, $14.95) straddles those two eras neatly. It’s also probably the best black Western to date. The directorial debut of Sidney Poitier, it plays like a pessimistic, clear-eyed variant of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, with Poitier and Harry Belafonte robbing banks to keep a wagon train of ex-slaves in supplies. There’s deep sorrow in the movie’s recognition that racism followed black settlers all the way west, but there’s also a cauterizing anger in Poitier’s terse Buck—as dangerous and as moral as any John Wayne hero.

Unfortunately, the artistry of that achievement was swamped by the calculated fury of a wave of blaxploitation flicks—in particular, the ”soul Westerns” written, directed by, and starring former pro football player Fred Williamson. While Williamson’s mini-mogul status represented an advance for black performers, it’s tough to keep a straight face watching him ride the range accompanied by what sounds like Barry White’s Love Unlimited Orchestra. And the plain fact is that Williamson’s movies are too dreadful to hold up as entertainment, let alone as the statements of black empowerment they occasionally aspire to be: They’re terribly written, ineptly filmed, and full of vague, stud posturing. The best of a bad bunch—1972’s The Legend of Nigger Charley—isn’t available on tape. That leaves unwatchable dreck like Adios Amigo (1975, Vidmark, PG, $9.95), a woefully improvised sagebrush comedy that features Williamson, Richard Pryor, and not one single laugh in 87 minutes.

At least Mario Van Peebles can direct. His camera in Posse is always prowling for the toughest and prettiest pictures, and the editing packs a whiplash punch. The casting, too, is rich, with a bevy of young rappers (Tone L oc, Big Daddy Kane) balanced by older vets like Pam Grier, Robert Hooks, and Isaac Hayes. If Williamson’s movies—wretched as they are—represent the independence of the lone black filmmaker, Posse seems to tap the entire universe of African-American talent and point out how mainstream it has become.

It’s doubly frustrating, then, that all the style and all those actors are in the service of such shallow new-jack shtick. The prologue with Woody Strode is just lip service: The tale that unfolds is a poorly written romp that follows Jessie Lee (Van Peebles) and his clichéd posse of bad guys as they head west from the Spanish-American War to avenge his father’s death at the hands of white townsfolk. Van Peebles and screenwriters Sy Richardson and Dario Scardapane set up Western history only to traduce it by playing entirely to the back row. Their idea of wit is a black saloon singer belting out modern R&B—no matter that it makes no sense. Their idea of political savvy is Nipsey Russell yelling Rodney King’s ”Can’t we all get along?” during a bar brawl. And the end credits commemorating the ”more than 3,000 black cowboys that roamed the early west” complete the charade. Is this soulless, ahistorical glitz meant to be educational?

A little humble humor might have given Posse a lift, but Van Peebles is too ; entranced with his camera moves and lover-boy image for that. The only irony here—it’s a good one, though—is that the director-star is a dead ringer for good old Herb Jeffries. Yippee-ki-yay, Mario. Posse: D+ The Bronze Buckaroo: C+ Buck and the Preacher: B+ Adios Amigo: F

Adios Amigo

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