David Oyelowo paints a compelling picture of the first Black lawman in the latest leg of Taylor Sheridan’s ever-expanding Western TV empire.
Screenwriter Josh Olsen (A History of Violence) used to tell anyone who would listen that his passion project was an account of the life of Bass Reeves, a man whose life and career were the stuff of fables. Reeves was the first Black deputy sheriff west of the Mississippi, with an arrest record in the thousands by most accounts. Best of all, legends assert that he almost never killed or shot anyone he didn’t have to.
Here’s the kicker: he would capture them and read them passages of the Bible on their way into county lock-up. By the time most of his charges were turned over to the judge, they vowed to live lives of Christian charity henceforth. The trouble, Olsen reasoned, was that it would be quite a feat indeed to render cinematic this constant reading of the Bible — though it’s, by any stretch of the imagination, one heck of a story.
Undaunted by the challenge, writer/producer Chad Feehan (Southland, Recitfy, Ray Donovan) and star/producer David Oyelowo have decided to try their hand with Lawmen: Bass Reeves. The results are a little uneven but quite stirring; presumably, if the Paramount+ show is a hit, we can look forward to Lawmen: Buford Pusser and Lawmen: Wyatt Earp. And when they find a fourth cop worth celebrating, they’ll proceed from there.
When we meet Bass (Oyelowo), he’s following his deranged master George (Shea Whigham) into combat against the Union army in a hopeless-looking battle. Bass knows well that he might die riding into combat with George but he’ll certainly die if he deserts in front of all these bloodthirsty confederates. He draws the admiration of fellow Southerner Esau Pierce (Barry Pepper) just before George grows tired of the ineffectual Confederate leadership, abandons the front lines, and heads back to his plantation.
Dejected and wounded, George gets good and drunk and offers Bass something too good to be true: a chance at his freedom. If he can beat his master at cards, he’ll let him go scot-free. Of course, George wouldn’t ever enter any kind of competition if he couldn’t control the odds. What he didn’t count on is Bass finally getting sick of the white man’s tricks. After beating the man half to death, he says goodbye to his beloved Jennie (Lauren E. Banks) and heads into the wilderness.
After years of helping widowed Sara Jumper (Margot Bingham) and her son Curtis (Riley Looc) eke out a meager existence in Seminole territory, Esau Pierce comes back into his life briefly, but tragically. Bass is reminded there is no hiding from the world and decides to go back and find Jennie and face George if he can. The latter’s left home to seek public office but Jennie and her daughter Sally (who will grow into Demi Singleton by episode 2) are waiting for him. Years of relative prosperity follow, with Jennie giving birth to another 4 kids as Bass tries his hand at farming.
One year during a particular fallow season, up rides Sherrill Lynn, a Deputy in need of a guide. He’s got to talk to indigenous homesteaders in his pursuit of a fugitive and not only does Bass speak the language, he’s a crack shot, and he’s used to roughing it. Though he disagrees with Lynn’s sadistic methods, he agrees that there might be something to making a living as a lawman, provided he’s allowed to do things his way.
The first three episodes of the show made available to critics were directed by Christina Alexandra Voros, who also acted as her own cinematographer. She, Feehan, and the editing team imbue Bass Reeves with the kind of deliberate pacing a show like this needs. Reeves’ life rejected a kind of Hollywood idea of how a story is meant to unfold. In order for us to find Reeves remarkable, we have to know the entire thing; at least as far as the historical record can tell us. And Feehan and Oyelowo have decided they are going to make use of every second of narrative development to let us know about the people on the show.
Oyelowo is, as you’d expect, terrific in the role. His every expression betrays contemplation of the human condition and the world he occupies, which grows more complex and violent every day he spends outside his family home. Voros’ best work comes in rendering the full spiritual weight of Reeves’ every gesture and thought. Reeves contemplates the stars as his one-time master tries to convince him of his worthlessness; his cradling the body of a surrogate son; and the horrible bookends of his first successful solo outing as a marshal. He sees the kind of place America is becoming, even if the Union “won” the Civil War. Cruelty is everywhere and he can do something to mitigate it and help his family, even if it puts him in harm’s way.
Though life on the Reeves homestead isn’t particularly eventful, it’s nevertheless very compelling. Banks and Singleton’s gently antagonistic relationship is beautifully drawn and the love that clearly undergirds their little disagreements is palpable. Similarly, the introduction of a subplot where a local boy Arthur Mayberry (Lonnie Chavis), sneaks by the farm to court Singleton is just lovely and unhurried, the stuff a show like this ought to be focusing on, not simply because where else are you going to see that scenario play out in American media? Bass’s life is defined by violence, but he’s allowing it so that he and his family can live without it on their terms. The show doesn’t forget that.
All this hefty personal business is enough to make up for thin digital photography, no sense of place, and its origins in the Taylor Sheridan Boomer Fantasy Factory. If all 175 shows in the Yellowstoniverse pay for something this considered, it might be okay that he’s become the Dick Wolf of the prairie — selling bored retirees fantasies of rich white people behaving badly.
Lawmen: Bass Reeves hits Paramount+ starting November 5th.