Sheriffs: A Critique of Bass Reeves – this highly unique western is a special delight.
One faces a daunting task, almost like a duty, when creating a play set during the period of Black enslavement in America. This challenge is to effectively convey the true horror of this time to an audience that has become desensitized to such depictions.
Bass Reeves, the protagonist of the story set in Arkansas during the American Civil War in 1862, is seen playing a game of cards with his enslaver George Reeves (played by David Oyelowo and Shea Whigham respectively). The outcome of this card game will determine Bass’s freedom, which he has earned through his valiant service in the Confederate army. Bass was forced to join the army when George enlisted, but this game presents him with a rare opportunity to gain his independence.
This scene showcases intense tension as Bass shakes and is on the verge of tears, while also portraying the horrifying reality of being under someone else’s control. It depicts the injustice and inhumanity of such a situation and brings to life the true story of living in a nation built on this foundation.
The result of the game forces Bass to leave the state due to safety concerns, leaving behind his wife Jennie (portrayed by Lauren E Banks, whose strong presence is almost overwhelming to watch). He seeks shelter in the territory of the Native American tribe and is welcomed by Sara (played by Margot Bingham), a Seminole woman whose husband died in the war, and her son Curtis (played by Riley Looc). The Seminole nation never gave up or made a meaningless agreement, making them technically free, or at least appearing to be.
Lawmen is a drama that aims to explore the concept of freedom for those who have been colonized or enslaved. For a short period of time, Bass lives peacefully in this environment, immersing himself in the culture and occasionally working as a translator. During this time, he encounters a former soldier who is now a prisoner, and learns that the Union has emerged victorious and emancipation has been officially declared. However, subsequent events demonstrate the futility of these formal victories. Bass is forced to relocate once again.
Ten years later, as a father with multiple children and a farmer struggling with poor harvests, he demonstrates the impact of poverty on a person’s freedom, despite the limited benefits of Reconstruction. When a US marshal named Sherrill Lynn (played by Dennis Quaid) offers him a position assisting in the pursuit of Native American criminals, he accepts in order to provide for his family.
This marked the start of Bass’s lifelong mission. In 1875, he was appointed as a deputy chief marshal for western Arkansas by Judge Isaac Parker (played by Donald Sutherland). For over three decades, he apprehended over 3,000 individuals, including his own son who was accused of murder.
Oyelowo has a lot to sink his teeth into in this role. He skillfully portrays a range of emotions, including anger, sadness, hope, and despair, while also embodying Bass’s strong moral compass. Lynn observes him praying over a victim’s body as she strips the corpses of their killers and remarks that he is “the most sincere man I have ever encountered.”
The western genre is well-known for its common themes. Examples include a protagonist fleeing from dogs by crossing a river and rugged men gazing into the sun. While there are moments where the film “Lawmen” borders on being a dull imitation, thanks to its adherence to a concise style of dialogue (“He died bravely.” “He lived bravely.”), its unique perspective and attention to detail in the storytelling, as well as its inspiration from real-life events, elevate it.
It additionally allows for potential growth. While Jennie plays the piano for her daughter, she shares that she was taught by her master as a gesture of the wealthy woman’s kindness. “The piano belonged to her, but the music was mine. Always have something that is uniquely yours, my dear.” This advice holds a distinctly feminine perspective.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, there exists a place where one can fully appreciate Quaid’s effortless charisma and underlying danger that has only grown stronger with time, and it fits flawlessly in this setting. When confronted with Lynn’s cruel and ruthless behavior, Bass remarks, “It’s difficult for a man to let go of fear and hate.” To which Lynn responds with a sly grin, “Oh come on, Bass, I don’t even bother trying.”
Based on Sidney Thompson’s trilogy of historical novels and written mainly by Chad Feehan (Ray Donovan, Banshee), Lawmen was originally intended to be a spin-off of 1883, itself a spin-off of Yellowstone, but now serves as the opener of an anthology series about figures attempting to impose order on a lawless country in thrall to the idea of manifest destiny. On this evidence, that is something to look forward to.