Van Peebles' 'Posse' has blacks, whites saddling up together

May 09, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

WASHINGTON — Washington--He'd just directed and starred in a huge hit for Warner Bros. called "New Jack City." His phone was ringing, well-wishers were everywhere. As an actor and as a director, he commanded the highest respect. Most important, he knew he was hot because "when they talked to me, they put 'baby' on the end of my name."

As in Mario, baby, you can do anything you want . . . as long as it has the word "Jack" in the title: "New Jack City 2" "Shaft Goes to New Jack City" or "Boyz in New Jack City."

So Mario Van Peebles decided instead to strike out in a different direction. No Jacks in his future: He's made the first African-American version of an Italian version of a Japanese version of an Anglo-American . . . western.

"Yeah," he says with a good-natured laugh, "I put it all in there. I have pocket watches with chimes and people crashing through windows in slow motion and gunfighters silhouetted against the sunset and golden bullets and good white guys and bad black guys and bad white guys and good black guys and lots of horses and dust and six-shooters. I don't think I missed much."

And he didn't. The film is "Posse," which opens Friday, and it may be great or it may be garbage, but it certainly is ambitious and energetic. Now you know why they call them horse "operas." It has more ups, downs, head-'em-off-at-the-passes and they-went-thataways than any 10 westerns from the good old days of westerns. And it also has more African-Americans than any 10 westerns from the good old days of westerns, though the conspicuous irony of that reality may change the meaning of "good old days" considerably.

"Posse" is about a gang of buffalo soldiers -- black infantrymen -- who return from the bloody fighting in Cuba in the Spanish-American War with a trunk-full of stolen gold, a mean white colonel and his men on their trail, and a mission. The mission, personal property of their leader, Jesse Lee (Van Peebles), is to avenge an atrocity in the West 10 years past: Jesse Lee's father, King David, founder of a black "free town" on the prairie, was murdered by Ku Klux Klanners. Now the Klanners are again assailing the place, which may be on land valuable to railroad interests.

That's one way of looking at it. Another way is from the point of view of a thirtysomething black American director who came of age watching Sergio Leone, Sam Peckinpah and John Ford's out-scale versions of how the West was won, and who has re-created it, only this time with the proper racial distribution.

"Somehow, when they got around to telling about how the West was won, we weren't there," says Van Peebles as affably as the Columbia economics graduate that he is.

By the numbers

Now, of course, the authentic movie star and director doesn't look like any kind of economics major, though he still has the movie business numbers down cold. ("See," he explains, "a hit is only a hit relative to its expense. 'New Jack' did $50 million, but it only cost $8.5 million, so the profit was huge.")

Ivy League? You'd never think so, not for a minute: black motorcycle boots, black jeans, a black polo shirt and a black suede jacket with fringe, not exactly a low-profile look in a town where all the men dress in gray suits with little black pointy shoes and red ties. Still, amid all the blackness of wardrobe is his unassailable matinee-idol face, one of those square jobs, big on white teeth, cheekbones and clear, powerful eyes. He's got that movie-star thing, which attracts giggles and whispers in a Washington restaurant sure as any politician would.

But now Van Peebles remembers the westerns of his youth.

"I loved 'em. I could really get into them. And then there'd come a moment when the black guy came shuffling on and he'd say something like" -- he squinches up his face like a slow-walking, slow-witted manservant and issues a pitch-perfect imitation of the old black face of entertainment -- " 'Mistah Sheriff, youse be wantin' me gwine feed dem hosses, suh?' And I'd just lose it. I just couldn't take it."

From that era, only one hero emerged: Woody Strode, the tall, dignified and muscular icon from such films as "Spartacus" and "The Professionals," but particularly Sergio Leone's "Once Upon a Time in the West," where he gets equal treatment with Jack Elam as a gunman who faces Charles Bronson in a famous pre-title sequence.

So if the West of "Posse" is multi-hued, it's only in accordance with the facts, according to Van Peebles: One out of every three cowboys was black; the West was dotted with free towns; blacks took part in all aspects of Western culture, from crime to cattle drives; and, in fact, even the word "cowboy" is derived from slave usage, originally being a derogatory term to denote the field hands in charge of the cattle, before it passed into general usage to denote a noble white hero of the plains.

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