I really, really wanted to love Paramount+'s new series Lawmen: Bass Reeves.

Not just because it stars magnetic British actor David Oyelowo, in a series he reportedly worked more than eight years to get made. But because, as a Black man who loves Westerns, I have been complaining for decades about the need for someone to make a great TV show or film about Reeves, a real person who was among the first African Americans to serve as a deputy U.S. marshal west of the Mississippi.

Unfortunately, after watching four episodes of Bass Reeves, I fear this is not the series I have been waiting for. Because it spends so much time trying to be a Modern Western Epic, it forgets about why we watch shows like this in the first place: to see a charismatic, take-charge fighter corral the bad guys and save the day.

And his victory feels all the sweeter because, this time, the hero is a Black man.

Once enslaved, Reeves becomes a free hero

Instead, Bass Reeves kicks off with the lead character in servitude during the Civil War – he's enslaved by an officer in the Confederate Army. On the battlefield, Reeves kills another Black man on the Confederate side who tries to run away from a brutal battle with Union forces.

Later, when his master cheats at a card game where the prize was to be his freedom, Reeves beats him down and has to flee. (This is a recurring theme which also doesn't get much explanation – how was Reeves able to develop the habit of beating up white men who violate his strong moral code, given how oppressed most Black people were at the time?)

What follows is an over-long preamble setting up Reeves' legend — we see him living with a Native American family and becoming a failed farmer before actually joining law enforcement in episode three – delaying his appearance as the galvanizing force for justice that made him a western legend.

Oyelowo plays Reeves as a taciturn man of few words. Which means a lot of screen time goes to know-it-all white guys around him constantly telling the camera who they are, played by some of the best character actors in the business – like Shea Whigham as the Confederate officer who once owned Reeves, Dennis Quaid as a marshal who enlists his help to catch a fugitive and Donald Sutherland as the judge who eventually hires him to be a marshal, too.

But the central tension in a story about a Black lawman in the Old West should be the fact that the law was so often used as a cudgel to unfairly oppress people who weren't white. And while we see Reeves advocate for treating non-white criminals with more understanding – one of them even becomes his backup partner – we don't see him questioning the basic structure of it all, at least in the first four episodes.

And the show doesn't do much to explain why a formerly enslaved man would even agree to enforce a justice system built by white men – though his devout Christianity is often shown to be the source of his strong moral code.

Challenging the cowboy myth with casting

America loves tales where it is the hero of its own story. It's one reason why Westerns are often so popular – traditionally, they've offered unambiguous stories about the triumph of heroes, the depravity of villains and the virtue of brave (usually white) cowboys and settlers populating the American west.

But placing a non-white person, especially a Black person, in the center of that narrative for a TV show or film changes everything. Because suddenly, storytellers must account for slavery, racism, oppression and the way in which many average white people back then simply assumed that Black people were not fully people – a decidedly non-heroic posture for 21st century audiences.

It's easier to ignore that reality – which is probably why Hollywood produced two Wyatt Earp films in the mid 1990s, but has taken decades to tackle the story of a Black western hero who may have inspired the fictional Lone Ranger character.

Oyelowo wound up teaming with Yellowstone creator Taylor Sheridan to get Bass Reeves made, which may explain its strained attempts to build his story into an epic tale and its awkwardness around race. (Despite its success, Yellowstone's focus on validating the virtue of the white Dutton family's possession of land in the west has always made its attempts to feature Native American characters feel perfunctory.)

One trap the series falls into is showing Reeves as a singular superman – he is the only Black character whose skills, smarts and moral code elevate him above the oppression most of his people faced, even after the Civil War ends. He walks through the front door of saloons without question. He challenges white men, punching Quaid's character in one contentious moment, without fear of being lynched.

Watch too much of this and you get the sense that all anyone like Reeves had to do to escape oppression back then was to shoot straight, be honest and beat up anyone who disrespected them. When Sutherland's character makes him a marshal, they don't even have a conversation over whether the public will accept a Black man arresting white people – which feels a tad unrealistic.

I've only seen four of the show's episodes, so with any luck, some of these issues will be addressed in future installments. And given how white families are centered in all the other series in Sheridan's Yellowstone-inspired TV universe, it is a pleasure to see an intact Black family at the heart of this one.

But this is just the first season of an anthology series which will go on to profile other lawmen. And its struggle to remain entertaining while also telling Reeves' complicated story shows there's still a ways to go before we get true equality in the world of heroes from the Old West.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.



The Paramount+ anthology series "Lawmen: Bass Reeves" is out this Sunday with its first installment. It chronicles the adventures of one of the first Black men to serve as a deputy U.S. marshal west of the Mississippi. NPR TV critic Eric Deggans says the program is a noble effort which often struggles to live up to the story of its legendary lead character.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: "Lawmen: Bass Reeves" should've started with a scene like this one deep in the third episode, where Reeves is already a marshal, taking a prisoner to jail when he gets in a deadly argument with the white man who is supposed to be his assistant, also known as a posse man.


DENNIS QUAID: (As Sherill Lynn) You think another white posse man's going to ride out with you, help you like I have? And now you going to shoot me.

DAVID OYELOWO: (As Bass Reeves) No, but they will.


DEGGANS: What follows is a gunfight with a gang trying to free the prisoner. Reeves, played by David Oyelowo, shows his courage and his dead aim with a firearm. But viewers won't see that for a while. Instead, the series begins 13 years earlier, when Reeves is an enslaved man working for an arrogant officer in the Confederate army. The officer responds cruelly when Reeves asks if he can learn to read.


OYELOWO: (As Bass Reeves) I'd still like to learn, master, so I can study the Bible.

DEGGANS: The officer drops the N-word while telling him Black people don't really go to heaven.


SHEA WHIGHAM: (As George Reeves) If you're going anywhere, you're going to where there's nothing. Only white folks go to the big dance, boy.

DEGGANS: And later, the officer suggests they play a card game where the prize is Reeves' freedom. But when Reeves sees the officer cheat...


OYELOWO: (As Bass Reeves) I played a queen of hearts. I had it.

WHIGHAM: (As George Reeves) Oh, there's only one queen of hearts in this deck.

DEGGANS: ...Reeves loses his temper...


WHIGHAM: (As George Reeves, inaudible).

OYELOWO: (As Bass Reeves, inaudible).

WHIGHAM: (As George Reeves, inaudible).

OYELOWO: (As Bass Reeves, inaudible).

DEGGANS: ...And beats his master severely, forcing Reeves to go on the run. This long preamble keeps us from what we really want to watch - our hero as a bold lawman reenacting the triumphs of the real-life Bass Reeves, who reportedly arrested 3,000 criminals during the late 1800s. This series takes way too long to build his legend, showing how Reeves spent time living with Native Americans and then as a failed farmer before becoming a marshal. And yet we don't see other important moments from his past, like how he learned how to shoot and fight so well or why he's so independent at a time when people of color were so oppressed. One hint we get is that he's devoutly religious, as he explains when another marshal, played by Dennis Quaid, needles him for his beliefs.


QUAID: (As Sherrill Lynn) You still believe in the Lord that let you spend half your life in chains?

OYELOWO: (As Bass Reeves) Man made those chains. It was God who gave me the hope to believe in a future without them.

DEGGANS: Oyelowo plays Reeves as a man of few words with empathy for people of color. But his lack of words makes space for long speeches from know-it-all white guys played by ace character actors like Quaid and Donald Sutherland as the judge who hires him as a marshal.


DONALD SUTHERLAND: (As Isaac Parker) was encouraged to hire you for the color of your skin because the Indians would listen to someone like you, but that's not why I called you in. I need a man with a good gun and a straight spine. You up for the task?

OYELOWO: (As Bass Reeves) I wouldn't be sitting here in my Sunday best if I wasn't.

DEGGANS: As a Black man who loves westerns, I've complained for many years about the lack of a great film or TV show about Reeves, whose exploits, some say, inspired the fictional Lone Ranger character. But the four episodes of Paramount+'s series I've seen so far fall short. Trying so hard to be a modern Western epic, they often forget to be entertaining, turning one of the Old West's most compelling figures into a virtuous cipher in the process. I'm Eric Deggans.


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