Rousseau’s dictum of “Men are born free and are chains everywhere.” fittingly describes the condition of what it means to be free from slavery after the Civil War. Even so, freedom was recalcitrant to belong to them, and the hardships that came with the price of liberty from the carnage of the war still beset the newly freed along the trail of exodus to the new promised land in the west as articulated in Sidney Poitier’s classic western film “Buck and the Preacher” (1971).
Buck (played by Sidney Poitier), a former Union sergeant turned scout, leads a wagon of freed blacks from Louisiana to the west, where they hope to start their new lives without a shadow of slavery. But alas, the shadow of slavery still haunts them. It is up for grabs in the form of renegade ex-soldiers, probably both of the Union and the Confederates, hired by the former enslavers to bring the migrants back to the chains of slavery. They attack the wagon, rape women, and kill the old and the young, constantly intimidating them to return to where they belong. But the pain of loss and death is even less painful than the thought of returning to the past, and the journey marches on. Buck protects the journey, and the self-proclaimed preacher conman artist (played by Harry Belafonte) a former slave, chimed in, despite his original ulterior motive of money-gaining. This unlikely dup proves to be something of Moses and Aaron, so to speak, in a way that they guide and protect the persecuted people from the sordid bondage to a new promised land even if it takes a nearly decimal lot.
Then there are Indians across the wilderness as gatekeepers to the land of freedom. They are no outsiders to the persecution with their land taken away and their very beings threatened to decimate. The Indians live by the toll fees migrants have to pay when crossing their territories, not the least due to the paucity of livelihood resulting from the government’s confiscation of the land. When Buck implores the tribal chief to help them against the white attackers because they are all brothers, the chief retorts him by saying, “But black people also fought against us with the whites.” The mistrust is natural, as is the confrontation of the two peoples whose rights are put to contests orchestrated by the forfeiter of the rights. The class consciousness between the Indians and the blacks needs a manifestation of shared injustice and empathy, which both of them attest to an objective reality where they prove to be on the same side.
This film is one of the great Sidney Poitier’s and finest as I have been watching as remembering this brilliant actor who has recently died. Always poised with a commending presence filled with natural confidence and will without being febrile and vociferous, Poitier exudes his irresistibly graceful charisma on screen in this memorable Western about blacks and Indians, who are often seen in the peripheral characters contributing to highlighting main white characters. But this is not a revisionist Western at all to polarize the thematic elements of the genre. Hardly so. Instead, “Buck and the Preacher” is an eye-opening Western film about the peoples who are likely to be cast as outsiders even if they also rightfully belong to, to quote Lincoln, “the family of freedom with a jewel of liberty” called Americans.