The classic American Western, a product of the twentieth century, was a fantasy. Verisimilitude was never its goal. Black folks were glaringly absent from those paeans to the society white Americans imagined for their forebears: tough, independent, righteous, and bound by an often quixotic moral code. Regardless, the genre is now revered by all (including Black fans) as the ultimate vehicle through which people declare their freedom, independence, morality and general badassedness.
Freedom. Freedom to right wrongs. Freedom to strike back. Freedom to revel in revenge. These are freedoms denied Black people throughout American history. We’re not even allowed to openly contemplate revenge for the centuries of enslavement, brutality, rape and other forms of violence heaped on us. Denying ourselves thoughts of retaliation that would plague any human treated as we have been is just another form of denying our full humanity.
The Netflix film The Harder They Fall, as with other recent movies like Django Unchained and The Birth of a Nation, tries to right this wrong and mythologize Black historical figures as independent rebels who take no shit, and will kill you for saying a word that even starts with “N.” The film, directed by Jeymes Samuel, employs historical characters, but makes up entirely new stories about their lives. These characters include Cherokee Bill (Lakeith Stanfield), a half-Cherokee, half-black outlaw raised by his black grandmother; Bill Pickett (Edi Gathegi), a cowboy and Wild West show performer; and Bass Reeves (Delroy Lindo), a U.S. Deputy Marshal who worked in what was then “Indian Territory”—today’s Oklahoma.
Then there is Rufus Buck—a historical figure who was fascinatingly, enigmatically unique. In the film, Buck is played by Idris Elba, who is 49. However, the real-life Buck was at most 21 years old when he was executed by order of “Hanging Judge” Isaac Parker in 1895. That’s the first, but not the last, liberty the film takes in adapting his story. Buck’s actual life, or what we can glean of it, deserves its own stage. That’s why I wrote the historical novel I Dreamt I Was in Heaven: The Rampage of the Rufus Buck Gang.
Some accurate information about Buck is available, but there is nothing close to a detailed life story. There are records of his arrests, and press accounts, but the latter cannot be fully trusted, since the advocacy journalism of the time portrayed Black and Native offenders as particularly evil and threatening. Buck went from being a very young man, arrested and jailed for selling illicit liquor, to the most wanted man in the Indian Territory. By all accounts, his gang threatened, maimed, killed, terrorized and raped, putting him right in the league of a Jesse James.
The fascinating question is “Why?” How do you evolve, in such a short span of time, from an aficionado of reading outlaw pamphlets, to the most feared man in the whole Territory? That’s the story I tried to tell, and it involved far more than just Buck and other outlaws. It involved politics, history, and the trajectory of America itself.
It is clear that the real Buck’s young age was important to his story; the two-week long rampage he carried out was that of a teenager, with all the rage and thoughtlessness that implies. The film, on the other hand, shows Elba’s Rufus Buck as a mature, hardcore killer, one doing his business in a principally Black world. But the real-life Buck was just a petty offender prior to his famous rampage. No experienced gunslinger, he also inhabited the opposite of a racially homogenous society. note: Night Road Free
In fact, the historical Buck’s multicultural environment clearly played a large part in his development. By 1895, there were more whites in Indian Territory than Indians, and the US government was on the verge of absorbing the land for white settlement. The Territories also included freedman towns: Black enclaves founded by former slaves. Buck himself attended a Christian mission school run by a white man. Buck was multi-racial. His father was half Creek Indian, and his mother was Black. Placing him in an overwhelmingly Black context may serve the film’s purposes, but it strips Buck of his backstory. Ditto for removing him from Indian Territory. note: The Voice of Joy 2 Movie And Night Road Movie