Friday, March 1, 2024

‘Lawman: Bass Reeves’ and Its Authentic Native Storytelling

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Lawman: Bass Reeves, the latest series in Yellowstone creator Taylor Sheridan‘s stable, tells an untold story that has been years in the making.

The Paramount+ anthology series, developed for TV by showrunner Chad Feehan, deep dives into the life story of legendary lawman Bass Reeves, played by David Oyelowo in the series, to chart his rise from enslavement to law enforcement as one of the first Black U.S. Deputy Marshals west of the Mississippi.

Oyelowo recently told The Hollywood Reporter that when he and Sheridan first pitched the series in 2015, “the whole town turned it down saying, ‘We’re not doing that because no one is doing Westerns.’” When they again went out with the project in 2017, the pair was told, “Oh, we’re not doing that because everyone is doing Westerns.” Oyelowo said he had a similar journey when getting Selma made, and that it wasn’t until the massive success of Sheridan’s other Western series — Yellowstone and prequels 1923 and 1883, namely — that the onscreen story of Bass Reeves was able to become a reality.

“You know, if he was white there would be monuments, there would be multiple movies, there would be graphic novels, everyone would be dressed up as him for Halloween. We know why it hasn’t been the case, and so rectifying that and telling his story as best as I could genuinely has been a seven- to eight-year [journey]. I’m just glad we’re here,” said Oyelowo of the larger-than-life historical figure at the center of the series.

The first episodes of Lawman: Bass Reeves show Bass’ escape from enslavement, and how he goes on to be taken in by Native American nations. “A lot of research had to go into that to hopefully be showing that in a different light than we’ve seen them,” says Oyelowo, speaking in a video exclusive to The Hollywood Reporter (below), of Bass living with the Choctaw and Creek cultures. Feehan adds, “It was important for us to really explore the authentic human condition for every race and creed in the show.”

In order to set the story for Lawman: Bass Reeves, which takes place in 1880s Arkansas, the creative team again brought on Mo Brings Plenty as the Indian Affairs Coordinator to not only ensure that the series portrays Native American culture authentically and accurately, but also to redefine what many people think of Native Americans during this time. Brings Plenty, who also has an acting role in Lawman: Bass Reeves, has served in a similar capacity on other series in the Yellowstone franchise (he also co-stars in the Paramount Network flagship series).

In the Lawman: Bass Reeves, Brings Plenty plays Minco Dodge, a part of the Lighthorsemen, who still exist today, the all-American Indian police force charged with policing Indian territory.

Below, Brings Plenty, an enrolled member of the Lakota Nations, is joined by Feehan and Lawmen: Bass Reeves castmembers, including co-star Forrest Goodluck who plays Billy Crow, to discuss some of the behind-the-scenes work that went into bringing the show’s Seminole, Choctaw and Creek cultures to life in the series. Their efforts included working with native speakers to get the language right, styling the characters in painstaking detail and showcasing members of Black Seminole nation.

Goodluck hopes the series helps shed light on what he calls the three different narratives of what people think the building of America was. “It really was built on the backs of Black and Brown and Native people, and it was all on Native land,” he says.

Brings Plenty has used his Yellowstone platform to discuss the uphill climb he has experienced to get authentic Native portrayals onscreen, including his frustrations with casting directors and misrepresentations that led to him nearly quitting acting in Hollywood. “If you want accuracy, then you have to come to a few of us,” he recently told THR, explaining how he shifted to consulting behind the scenes on Sheridan’s series. “It’s a slow process, but I’m trying to change how everything is being done.”

Now, the actor and consultant says he’s proud of what Lawman: Bass Reeves has the capacity to do for the Seminole, Choctaw and Creek nations. “It’s going to bring to light that their culture still exists,” he says in the video. “If you look back at the true history, you’re going to see American Indian folks helping everyone that has ever come into this country. African American slaves that were seeking freedom, the people helped them. A lot of these tribes were given slaves, but the tribes didn’t utilize them as slaves, they adopted them into their culture.”

Goodluck praises his character for being wild, different and unique, saying of the series, which recently released its fifth of 10 episodes, “Seeing stories that are able to establish a myth of the West but then also build on real themes of what actually happened I think is going to educate people but also entertain people.”

Lawman: Bass Reeves is the first season in what the creative team, including Oyelowo who is an executive producer, hopes will be a continuing anthology, focusing on other lesser-told stories of heroic lawmen in future seasons.

Brings Plenty says of their goals, “The more that we grasp onto our identity, we can also be progressive in society and continue our coexistence. So the representation in this show is so vital and important. I’m just very honored to be a small part of making that all come to fruition.”

Lawmen: Bass Reeves streams Sundays on Paramount+.

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