Criterion Review: BUCK AND THE PREACHER Brought a New Perspective to the Old West

The classic 1972 Western starring Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte finally arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of Criterion

After the Civil War, the eradication of formal slavery created a new set of challenges for African Americans. While no longer slaves, the “Jim Crow” era of American history was also a difficult time as the black population sought to make a living in an environment that was often openly hostile and racist.

This was also a time of westward expansion in the United States, and the trek across the plain was grueling for anyone — and doubly treacherous for black migrants who dealt with both the challenges of the trail and of their race.

It’s in this backdrop that Buck and the Preacher finds its story. In a cinematic era in which the Western genre was shifting heavily toward revisionism, this film tries in one respect to be historically restorative in its depiction: restoring the presence of black people in the American West. Buck (Sidney Poitier), a skilled scout and wagonmaster, makes his living by helping convoys of black families with their westward journeys. His efforts are the enmity of racist white locals who resent the encroachment of Negroes in their towns and spaces.

The film’s blistering opening scene effectively sets the stage, as a posse of goons raids a newly founded black-owned homestead, terrorizing the residents at gunpoint and killing all their livestock. Their message is clear: we don’t want your kind here.

Buck resolves to help the group, and the dynamic gets a shakeup with the another new arrival: The Preacher (Harry Belafonte), a smooth-talking itinerant minister and probable grifter whose clerical credentials are dubious at best. Contentions run hot between Buck and The Preacher; a previous adversarial encounter set the pair on shaky footing, creating a baseline of distrust which will come to define their relationship as events conspire to keep pairing them together as a tenuous duo.

The film strikes a wonderful balance, mixing comedy, action, and drama, plus some heist elements and one of the most satisfying of all film tropes (enemies to friends). It’s full of action and gunslinging without being gratuitous. Family-appropriate without being sanitized. Socially conscious, but not preachy.

Perhaps the most unique element of the film is its portrayal of and interactions with Native Americans. Buck has working relationships with local tribes, with whom he negotiates safe passage for his caravans. There’s a sense of solidarity in the groups for whom white racism has proven a common antagonist, but even so both groups must look out for their own interests. It’s not such a far-fetched parallel to consider how in the climate of the film’s release, each group faced similar civil rights battles and could hopefully recognize in the other a common purpose.

At a time when black representation in the film industry was exploding in the form of independent exploitation fare (Sweet Sweetback, Shaft, Hit Man, Hammer, Trouble Man, Blacula, Super Fly, Slaughter, and Black Caesar all released within year of Buck), Sidney Poitier worked within the studio system and fought for dignified roles and stories with meaningful messages to challenge contemporary societal norms. With Buck and the Preacher, he had his first opportunity to direct — in something of a coup — when disagreements with original director Joseph Sargent led to his dismissal (don’t feel too bad for Sargent though; he quickly followed up with the absolutely wonderful Burt Reynolds classic White Lightning, a happy best case scenario for both films).

For some reason (most likely simply overshadowed by the era’s more in-your-face blaxploitation fare) Buck and The Preacher remains underseen and underappreciated in the canon of black cinema, and indeed cinema at large. Like The Learning Tree, it’s stylistically in a classical mold, but with a major shift in perspective, and like that film it been selected for inclusion in The Criterion Collection, which I hope will raise its deserving profile.

The Package

The Blu-ray disc is housed in the usual Criterion clear case format and includes a fold-out booklet with an essay by Aisha Harris and transfer notes.

Special Features and Extras

Expanding the Western: The Road to Buck and the Preacher (24:31)
Author Mia Mask takes us through a history of Poitier and Belafonte and the making of the film.

Gina Belafonte (13:48)
Harry Belafonte’s daughter retraces her father’s career, from theater to music to film acting, as well as his civil rights activism.

TV Episodes
Belafonte and Poitier appear together on episodes of several television shows in support of the film, discussing not only the movie but a wide spectrum of societal issues and concerns.

  • The Great American Dream Machine (12:49)
  • The Dick Cavett Show (1:04:07)
  • Soul! (27:43)

A/V Out.

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Except where noted, all 16:9 screen images in this review are direct captures from the disc(s) in question with no editing applied, but may have compression or resizing inherent to file formats and Medium’s image system.

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