There’s a school of thought that holds black cowboys have been ignored by Westerns. And there are two answers to that. If you mean mainstream, major studio films then yes. Apart from Blazing Saddles which wasn’t exactly a straight-up Western they were mostly regulated to sidekick status.
If you look at indie and exploitation films however there’s everything from Posse to Boss Nigger directed by Jack Arnold (The Creature From The Black Lagoon, The Incredible Shrinking Man) and written by/starring Fred Williamson (VFW, From Dusk Till Dawn). Add to that Hell On The Border from writer/director Wes Miller (Lily Grace: A Witch Story, River Runs Red).
Bass Reeves (David Gyasi, Pulsar) is a former slave turned lawman. When we first meet him he’s carrying outlaw Charlie Storm (Ron Perlman, Hellboy) out of a mud hole to arrest him. Right away we see he’s a strong man. Both physically and mentally as he doesn’t beat the shit out of him despite repeatedly being called a nigger.
Up until this time he’s been a posse man, working for Marshall Franks (Chris Mullinax). He’s suggested for promotion, but as a black man in Arkansas shortly after the Civil War, he runs into opposition. However, when he saves the life of Judge Parker (Manu Intiraymi, Xenophobia, The 5th Passenger) there’s no denying him a chance to prove himself. When nobody else will risk it he agrees to track down Bob Dozier (Frank Grillo, Beyond Skyline). The one catch, he gets Charlie Storm as his guide and assistant.
Bass Reeves was a real person and Hell On The Border is based on his story. It walks a fine line at times between making points about the treatment of men like Reeves and being an entertaining action film. A lot e of the first act involves the reaction to his killing a white man in saving the judge’s life. But that is needed to make it clear just what kind of opposition he faced.
Once the film moves out of town and onto Dozier’s trail however Hell On The Border becomes a more straight forward Western with some great action scenes. Reeves and Storm make a good odd couple. They compliment and contrast each other well even as they come together to take out the villains. Gyasi channels the late Woody Strode as the tough as nails hero. Perlman makes a great sidekick, not afraid to say what’s on his mind, but there when he’s needed.
Grillo makes a chilling villain. Being used to seeing him in more heroic roles it was good to see he can play both sides of the line. His ranting against the government evokes what we hear now from the Sovereign Citizen movement and the likes of Cliven Bundy and his supporters. It’s a nice touchstone to our times and makes his character more understandable without making him sympathetic.
At an hour and fifty minutes, Hell On The Border does run a bit long. There’s a bit to much talk in the first act that could have been condensed. And a few peripheral characters that could have been eliminated. But overall this is a very solid film, certainly one of the best of the recent crop of Westerns such as Eminence Hill and Once Upon A Time In Deadwood. The film bills itself as Part 1 of a series. Given Reeve’s career, this could be an enjoyable franchise.
Hell On The Border is available on streaming platforms from Lionsgate.