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Thursday, May 30, 2024

Harlem Goes West

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Saddle-up your horse and get your six-shooter ready for an exciting journey that’s available only for a limited time.

From now until July 27th, the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art will present “Harlem Goes West: The Black Cowboy in Western Films.”

The exhibit, which is in its second week, displays posters from several Western films that have African-Americans in leading roles, from 1922’s “The Crimson Skull” to 1993’s “Posse.”

Some of the films depicted in the posters will be shown during special screenings at the Eiteljorg.

Carol Street, curator of fine art at the Eiteljorg, said the exhibit is designed as a fun way to celebrate the contributions of Black actors who have played cowboys on the silver screen. Those contributions, she said, have often been ignored by Hollywood and historians.

“When many of us discuss and focus on Westerns as a culture we usually think of actors like John Wayne,” said Street. “As this exhibit shows, however, there is another story on the history of Western cinema that is very awesome.”

That “other story,” Street added, is the fact that although white actors were usually cast in Westerns, several successful films with positive portrayals of Blacks in the West have also been made.

As the motion picture industry began to take shape in the early 1900s most films, if they showed Blacks at all, depicted them in stereotypical roles such as servants, slaves, maids or silly and subservient entertainers.

In order to appeal to white audiences early filmmakers avoided the use of ethnic minorities in Westerns (even American Indians were often played by white actors) and neglected to accurately chronicle African-American contributions to the development of America’s Western frontier.

“The under-representation of Blacks in Westerns is striking considering the fact that almost one out of every four working cowboys in the late 19th century were Black,” Hollywood film critic Emanuel Levy recently stated.

In fact, according to the Cowboy Encyclopedia by historian Richard W. Slatta, hundreds of thousands of Blacks left the South following the Civil War and migrated West to work as miners, farmers, soldiers, newspaper publishers, hotel owners, restaurateurs, clergymen, barbers and (occasionally) politicians.

Some of the best known Black figures from Western history include cowboy Isman Dart, lawman Bass Reeves and cowboy Bill Pickett, who is credited with inventing the popular rodeo sport steer wrestling.

In response to Hollywood’s initial failure to provide positive portrayals of Blacks in the West, Black performers and filmmakers began to create their own productions. Most of these films were only shown in small Black theaters due to the racial segregation of the day.

One of the earliest Black cowboy film stars was Herb Jeffries (also known as Herbert Jeffreys) a Detroit jazz singer who performed with bands led by Duke Ellington and Earl “Fatha” Hines. While touring the South, Jeffries noticed the absence of Westerns in Black theaters and wanted to give Black children “their own cowboy hero.”

After finding a producer and distributor, Jeffries released and starred in the 1938 movie “Harlem on the Prairie.” He developed a recurring character that appeared in subsequent releases such as “The Two Gun Man From Harlem,” “The Bronze Buckaroo” and “Harlem Rides the Range.”

Until the 1960 release of Woody Strode’s “Sergeant Rutledge,” Jeffries was the only Black actor who received top billing in Westerns. Mainstream Hollywood, after finally realizing that a sizeable market for Black Westerns existed, began recruiting Black actors and actresses like Strode, Sidney Poitier and Lola Falana for such films.

Jeffries’ film “Two-Gun Man from Harlem” is among the movies that will be shown on the following schedule:

“Buck and the Preacher” (1972): Featuring Sidney Poitier (1927- ) and Harry Belafonte (1927- ) as a wagon master and a con-man preacher who forge an unlikely team to help freed slaves go West to pursue a better life.

Screening: Saturday, May 31 at 3 p.m.

“Sergeant Rutledge” (1960): Featuring Woody Strode (1914-1994) as a respected Buffalo soldier who defends himself during a court martial trial after being falsely accused for the rape and murder of a white officer’s daughter.

Screening: Saturday, June 28th at 2 p.m.

“Silverado” (1985): Featuring Danny Glover (1947), Kevin Costner, Kevin Kline and Scott Glenn as four misfit friends who ride into a small town and correct its injustices.

Screening: Saturday, June 28th at 2 p.m.

“Blazing Saddles” (1974): This satirical Mel Brooks comedy pits a corrupt political boss against the sheriff he appoints to keep law and order.

Outdoor screening: Thursday, July 3 at 9:30 p.m.

“Two-Gun Man From Harlem” (1938): Featuring Herb Jeffries (1911- ) as singing cowboy Bob Blake, who is falsely accused of the murder of his boss. He goes to Harlem and takes on the gangsters who really committed the murder.

Screening: Saturday, July 26, 2 p.m.

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