by Christopher C. Thompson | 18 February 2022 |
Black history fact: In 1964, Sidney Poitier was the first African American actor and first Bahamian to win the Academy Award for Best Actor for his role in the film Lilies of the Field. Poitier is known for several iconic roles in unforgettable films, including Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, In the Heat of the Night, A Raisin in the Sun, and so many more.
However, my favorite Sydney Poitier film of all time, by far, is Buck and the Preacher. Buck and the Preacher is an important film for several reasons, including that it recasts the true history of post-Civil War America, the American frontier, and the black cowboys dispersed across the landscape.
It’s a powerful film that tells a complex story about a nation and several groups of people in transition and trying to navigate the abrupt sociopolitical changes in the country. Significant also is that this was Poitier’s directorial debut, and one of the very first major Hollywood films to cast black actors in the leading roles of a western. It’s a certified classic, and I pretty much make it a point to watch it at least once a year. I watched it again recently as a way to help process the loss of Sidney Poitier, who passed away on January 6th of this year.
A new cinematic statement
As I watched it again, it helped me to appreciate further a brand new western, The Harder They Fall, that also centers on African American actors and a uniquely African American narrative. Here’s my grand theory: The Harder They Fall is definitely an ode, but it’s almost like a sequel to Buck and the Preacher. Whether intentional or not, it definitely has several striking similarities.
For one (spoiler alert), both of the main characters bear the name “Buck.” As it turns out, the protagonist and the antagonist are brothers who bear the family name, Buck. Both films feature a resolution that hinges on getting money to help the settlement by robbing a white-owned bank. And both films have as a backdrop the need to protect the interests of Black Exodusters trying to make it on the American frontier. There’s a lot more (like that the bank robbery in both films featured a female who serves as an initiator while wearing a red dress), but the concepts above are the big ones.
While The Harder They Fall centers on the classic western theme of revenge, it’s the backdrop that appears to be the main idea. The real story of the film is that a black town, Redwood City (established by Rufus Buck), must survive the settlement rush and westward expansion of white settlers who will undoubtedly threaten to dispossess and displace them. In Buck and the Preacher, the Exodusters are contrasted against the Native Americans who (having been long displaced and disenfranchised) are much more well-prepared to resist white encroachment and the oppressive white power structure, and maintain a resistant attitude even towards the black people seeking sanctuary. Buck is trying to help them settle west while mercenaries are trying to drive them back to their former slave plantations.
It begs us to reflect at least a bit on the numerous “Redwood Cities” that this country has seen, be it Rosewood in Florida or Greenwood (AKA “Black Wall Street”) in Tulsa. The list is long of places and times wherein black people sought to self-determine, only to have their plans and peaceful towns disrupted by certain jealous, conniving and hateful members of the dominant group, who persist along the lines of a brand of determination of their own.
Pan-Africanism is a reaction to the belief that freedom in America will never be attained. Thus, the only plausible response is to return to the land of origin to escape the oppressive imperial force. The National Memorial for Peace and Justice (colloquially referred to as The National Lynching Memorial) serves as a stark reminder of our painful past of brutal subjugation and terrorism. If you carefully peruse the iron pillars that represent brown bodies swinging from trees, you will find that they tell interesting stories.
Each pillar in the monument is projected from the floor or hanging from the ceiling and represents a county in the US where there is record of a lynching. Also, each pillar has stamped into the metal the names of the specific people who were lynched in that particular county and on what particular date. A careful reading of several of the pillars yields several mass killings, as the list of names for that county is long but then the dates all coincide. Greenwood, Ocoee, Rosewood, and on and on. There has always been a decidedness to limit the power and space and movement of minorities in this country…even if it means using the ultimate form of restriction.
Those efforts seemed to spike after a black man ascended to the nation’s highest office. The lynchings increased as black boys were shot for arguing with cops in the subway station (Oscar Grant), for playing their music too loud (Jordan Davis), or for simply walking through the neighborhood with corner store snacks (Trayvon Martin). Notice how the politics of space plays in those and other cases. It’s the dominant group making an arbitrary judgment for access and use of public “free” space. It’s reprisal against shifting power dynamics and the free use of public space and opportunity. In time, this culminates in attacks on the nation’s Capitol and threats against lawmakers and law enforcement. These terrorists will hold the entire government hostage if necessary.
Here’s the worst part. These days, I find myself more and more concerned that the same is true for Adventism. We seem to simply reflect the issues manifest in our world rather than providing a solution to them. Is there adequate space for minority members and leaders to self-determine and self-actualize?
In a church with over 20 million members and at least two-thirds of them being brown, it’s absolutely astounding that the minorities (who are actually a majority) have never had representation at the highest level of church leadership. Minorities established separate entities because they were not allowed space to participate in higher leadership roles and unique community needs were being neglected.
A separate school was established for several reasons; among them was that Ellen White counseled that she could see how many young black leaders would be trained for service here. Yet, one glaring reason was minority students weren’t going to be welcomed anywhere else. And as quiet as it’s kept…they still aren’t; just ask the current and former black students at Southern and Andrews. And while both schools have taken some steps to address these issues (Andrews being the more substantive), the damage over the years has been significant and persistent. I have personal stories of this. And yes, I went to Southern too.
Speaking of that separate school, I’m a proud graduate, and now faculty member, of Oakwood. I was a freshman when I learned of what should have come to our school at the direction of Ellen G. White herself, who said in her will:
After the death of both James Edson White and his wife, my said Trustees are hereby empowered and directed to apply the amount prescribed in Subdivision (a) of paragraph FIFTH toward the discharge of any legal claims against the estate of James Edson White, and then after the full discharge of such claims, the said amount mentioned in Subdivision (a) shall be applied to the maintenance of the mission schools for negros now conducted by the negro department of the Seventh-day Adventist General Conference.
I’m no lawyer, but the language appears to be fairly clear here. It’s been said that it’s a dead will…and of course the brethren made a deal many years ago…and the Ebony Fund…blah blah blah. Just sounds a lot like limiting space and opportunity to me. But here’s the story of black history and the legacy of black people in America…They would not die. Which reminds me of a scene in The Harder They Fall.
Treacherous Trudy is trying to intimidate Stagecoach Mary and she says, “Hope must die.” In actuality, Hope is a person whom Treacherous Trudy had to kill. Trudy used the story and statement to suggest that Mary’s supposed hope of acquiring the rival gang’s property is futile. It has a deeper side in my mind though. In this moment, could Trudy be adopting the same oppressive voice that they are seeking to protect their people from? This is a fear of mine, that by limiting space, we only end up perpetuating more hate and misunderstanding. Nevertheless, I am reminded of one of my favorite texts in all of scripture that promises us that “Hope does not disappoint.” I am grateful that God always delivers on our greatest hopes, even when our neighbors try to tear them down. I hope we don’t have to wait until heaven to see affirmation and celebration of minority contributions and adequate space for authentic expressions from each group. Only then will we truly have a more perfect union.
Christopher C. Thompson writes about culture and communication at thinkinwrite.com. He’s the author of Choose to Dream. When not writing, he’s jogging or binge-watching Designated Survivor. He’s married to Tracy, who teaches at Oakwood University.