black cowboys, history’s forgotten

In 1956, the tragic fate of The Prisoner of the Desert, film by John Ford, moves America. No one would suspect then that the brave vigilante played on screen by John Wayne was inspired by the African-American cowboy Britton Johnson, who went in search of his wife and daughters, kidnapped by the Kiowa Indians. “To be a hero, you had to be white”, summarizes the historian Art Burton, in the remarkable documentary Black Wild West.

If, in the Hollywood imagination, only pale faces face the Redskins, black Americans have indeed contributed to writing the history of the conquest of the West. Some, slaves who fled from the plantations or freed after the Civil War, found refuge among the Amerindians and fiercely fought the settlers. Others, on the contrary, enlisted in the American army, with the “Buffalo Soldiers” sung by Bob Marley, or were the slaves of certain sedentary Indian tribes, forced to imitate the whites even in their inhumanity.

The West, land of freedom

Director Cécile Denjean retraces the trajectory of four men and one woman, using astonishing archives and sometimes clumsy reconstructions. Each embodies an archetype of the American myth: the sheriff, the stagecoach driver, the cowboy, the intellectual, the trapper. For everyone, the West represented a land of freedom, where to reinvent oneself.

Let’s take the example of Bass Reeves: the slave of a Kansas politician, he joined the southern troops alongside his master but fled, joined the abolitionist ranks and fought alongside the Seminole and Creek Indians. Emancipated in 1865, he became the first black deputy sheriff. Fine trigger, ace of disguise, he hands over 3,000 outlaws to the authorities. Incorruptible, he even arrests his own son, accused of feminicide. He will however be stripped of his post by the segregationist laws, passed by those he had helped to protect!

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