Buffalo Soldiers (DVD) is a marvelous exception to Hollywood’s rule of characteristically ignoring Black reality. In the process, it’s also a beautifully captured piece of Black history. On both accounts, one does well to thank God for small favors.
For instance, what was the last Tinseltown-produced film you saw, on either the big screen or TV, about Native American life? Dances with Wolves with Kevin Costner running around as courageous convert to Indian life doesn’t count. Neither does Geronimo, which was more about the White men tracking down the legendary warrior than it was about the man himself.
Also, when’s the last time you saw a cinematic portrayal of Asian life where Asians didn’t play second fiddle to White heroics? A la Tom Cruise miraculous morphing from stumbling drunk to valiant savior in The Last Samurai. Hell, were it not for the conscientious determination of iconic actor-producer-director Edward James Olmos throwing his weight around to engineer triumphs like American Me, Stand and Deliver and A Million to Juan, Latinos would be virtually invisible in American cinema — outside playing gang members and maids.
They sure couldn’t count stars like Jennifer Lopez and Cameron Diaz who have the power to influence things but are too busy getting filthy rich in film roles where they can pretend to be White. So, let’s be grateful for — and hope to hell we see more efforts like — Buffalo Soldiers.
It’s based on life as lived by all-Black U.S. Cavalry Troop H, charged to protect the Western territories not long after the Civil War. The company is mustered to go get and bring back or, failing that, kill Native American freedom-fighter Vittorio who, with his guerilla force, has been kicking hell out of White folk who stole and are squatting on his people’s land in New Mexico. They’ve been mercilessly putting to death every damned one they got their hands on.
Buffalo Soldiers is a well-crafted, character-driven script richly telling the kind of story that gets left out of the history books when kids are in class learning about how the Old West was settled (i.e., colonized) by virtue of the sainted doctrine of Manifest Destiny. This is a fascinating look at Danny Glover and a bunch of gifted Black actors giving rich dimension to figures few movie-goers otherwise would’ve ever thought twice about: soldiers — some ex-slaves, others barely a generation removed — busting their Black behinds in Spartan conditions to do a tough job under White officers most of whom wouldn’t spit on a n***er to put out a fire.
By the time you’re barely halfway done watching, you truly have to ask, “Weren’t these Indian-hunters, when it comes to it, shooting at the wrong folk?” The climactic ending, when they catch up to and corner their quarry, will give you a hell of a lot to just sit there and think about.
Glover, for all that he doesn’t exactly possess a world of acting range, usually gives a viable performance (Mandela, The Saint of Fort Washington, Lethal Weapon) as he does here. Importantly, he earned big props using his juice as co-executive producer to get this movie made. He plays top-kick Sgt. Washington Wyatt commanding a group of hard-bitten grunts who’d follow tough-but-fair Wyatt into an assault on Hell, then ask questions later.
Supporting lead is, by the by, the Twin Cities’ own Carl Lumbly (Cagney & Lacy, M.A.N.T.I.S.), formerly of Mixed Blood Theatre. Lumbly delivers an eerie depiction of half-Seminole, half-Black Army scout Horse, enigmatic loner and a damned good man to have beside you when the bullets and arrows start flying.
In the ensemble, each admirably acquitting themselves, are accomplished veterans Glynn Turman, Michael Warren, Clifton Powell and, in a featured turn, Mykelti Williamson, as well as skilled Native American actors Harrison Lowe as Vittorio, Jeri Brunoe-Samson and Chesley Wilson.
Giving credit where, after all, credit is due, supporting White cast members Timothy Busfield, Tom Bower, Bob Gunton and Robert Knott (as thoroughly despicable Texas Ranger Capt. Draper) do a fine job. And Charles Haid deftly directs.
Thing is, had this been, say, Glover’s buddy Mel Gibson heading an equally skilled White cast in a different re-enactment of the Old West, starring in, oh, Custer’s Last Stand, you wouldn’t’ve missed it on TNT. No, Hollywood would have plastered it all over the place in every major movie house across America.
Okay. Buffalo Soldiers, an informative, entertaining gem, got short shrift. But it got made, which is a real break.