Directed by star Sidney Poitier and written by Ernest Kinoy, a wagon master and a con-man preacher help freed slaves dogged by cheap-labour agents out West. Also starring: Harry Belafonte, Ruby Dee, Cameron Mitchell, Denny Miller, Nita Talbot, John Kelly, Julie Robinson and Enrique Lucero.
Buck and the Preacher fits in with the westerns you know and love but also forges its own path. It’s not often you come across a film in this genre, made in the 1970s, that has a politically driven story, is led by Black actors and features indigenous people as actual characters rather than canon fodder or villains. It takes that basic foundation of bank robbers and bounty hunters then turns it into something more layered and substantial. In that sense it helps to make the story accessible, it plays out in a familiar manner with similar pacing. However, whereas so often these stories are about fame and glory, getting rich quick or protecting your family, here they act for the good of the many, to provide a sustainable future after a horrific past.
Visually again it feels much like the classic films of the genre, the wide open shots mixed with the quick cut, close action sequences. It has a great colour and variety, capturing the more typical elements but in a slightly slower, more thoughtful manner. It manages to convey the larger depth behind its story, the weight that comes from building a life for former slaves, on the run from those who seek to force them back into servitude. It may be a little too slow for some, there was the time to dive a little deeper into the relationships and to progress the story further. It also would have been great to see the ending developed further and what its resolution meant for these characters, as it is so infrequently that the aftermath of the abolition of slavery is explored for all of its complications.
Sidney Poitier becomes a double threat for Buck and the Preacher serving as his directorial debut while also taking the lead. There are few actors like Poitier, he has an incomparable presence and charisma, and he’s a relentless joy to watch. Here he puts aside the more cheeky, light-hearted nature to many of his roles, in favour of more stoic and steadfast qualities. Although he creates a fun, banter-like partnership with Harry Belafonte, the two embodying entirely different characters and having to work to find some middle ground. It adds a nice touch of levity and comedy to an otherwise fairly dramatic tone. Ruby Dee is another great addition, she has a strong chemistry with Sidney Poitier, she also brings independent, dedicated and logical qualities to her character, it’s only a shame she didn’t have a bigger part to play.
Buck and the Preacher takes your typical western and adds a bigger meaning. It uses a classic format and style to tell a more important story of what happened after slavery was abolished. It has that political edge but the pacing and progression to the story are hugely familiar to the quintessential westerns that came before it. It’s a strong directorial debut from Sidney Poitier who also gives a typically memorable performance in front of the camera, with a huge determination and pride. It can move slow at times and there was room to develop the story further but it should definitely be on the watch list for any western fans.