White-Washing the Old West
I am a huge fan of westerns and because of this, my husband and I recently went to see Cowboys & Aliens. I left the movie extremely disappointed. It wasn’t because of the plot holes or ridiculous storyline. It is a movie about cowboys fending off an alien invasion after all. There has to be some allowance for ridiculousness.
What bothered me is that I did not see one African American in that movie. Hollywood has long performed a disservice to the black community by virtually eliminating the presence of African Americans from westerns. Not only did African American cowboys make up 25% of the cowboy population, some of the greatest American cowboys on record were black. Furthermore, better than 30% of cowboys were Mexican. Cowboy tradition was founded in Spanish culture. If people would truly acknowledge this, they would realize that there were more brown and black faces riding the Western Plains than white ones.
What is most upsetting to me is that the writers and directors of this movie had an easier time imagining aliens in the Old West than black people. I don’t know why this should surprise me. There was a time when Hollywood even attempted to keep Native Americans out of westerns by having white people play their parts.
Every time producers and directors neglect to cast black characters in westerns, they are burying the history of great cowboys like Nate Love, Bill Pickett, Bronco Sam, and Charley Willis (the original singing cowboy). No disrespect to Gene Autry intended.
The lack of recognition for blacks in the Old West has bothered me such much I am actually working on a screenplay right now about African American cowboys. It may never see the light of day, but I believe that I have to do something to acknowledge the many African Americans who risked their lives everyday to help advance the development of the West. It would be truly sad if African American cowboys rode off into the sunset of white historical amnesia.