Buck and the Preacher (1972): Sidney Poitier’s Directing Debut, Character-Driven Western Starring Himself and Harry Belfonte

Star Sidney Poitier made an honorable feature directing debut with Buck and the Preacher, a character-driven Western, in which he starred alongside Harry Belafonte and Ruby Dee.

Buck and the Preacher
Buck and the preacher poster.jpg

Film Poster

This film is notable for breaking the long-held Hollywood traditions for casting black actors as the central characters, and for portraying both strife and solidarity between two racial minorities: African Americans and Native Americans.

Set in the late 1860s in the Kansas Territory shortly after the American Civil War, Buck and the Preacher follows a former soldier named Buck (Sidney Poitier) as he leads wagon trains of African Americans from Louisiana all the way West to the unsettled territories of Kansas.

In order to ensure safe passage and food for his company, Buck negotiates a deal with the Native Americans in the area. In return for his money, the residents allow him to kill some buffalo, and to pass through their lands, a “deal” contingent on the fact that they do s0 rather quickly.

Meanwhile, several white men are hired by the plantation owners in Louisiana to raid the African American wagon trains and settlements, aimed to either scare them back to Louisiana or, worse, kill them.

Before long, the raiders attempt to kill Buck by setting a trap at his home. However, warned by his alert wife Ruth (Ruby Dee), he manages to escape.

While in flight, Buck meets Reverend Willis Oaks Rutherford (Harry Belafonte), a mysterious man masquerading as a preacher, forcing him to switch horses.

The Preacher has a change of heart, joining forces with Buck, after observing the carnage that the white raiders have inflicted on the African American travelers.

In the rousing finale, Buck, Ruth and the Preacher ambush several raiders in a brothel. They then proceed with robbing a bank, and taking on the entire band of raiders.

Production values are good, especially the score. The blues musicians Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, and Don Frank Brooks perform in the soundtrack, which is composed by jazz great Benny Carter.

Sharply uneven, the movie contains some breezy and even entertaining scenes, but it’s also burdened by its share 0f slow and repetitive ones.

Nonetheless, for a first-time director, Poitier shows skill for staging scenes with easy, unguarded humor, especially in his encounters with Belafonte.

Made on a budget of $2 million, the film received mixed reviews, and it did not perform well at the box office.

However, released during the height of blaxploitation, a wave of entertaining all-black action pictures, such as Shaft and Coffy, Buck and the Preacher was in many ways an anomaly in the broader cultural landscape.

Credits:

Directed by Sidney Poitier
Written by Ernest Kinoy
Produced by Joel Gilckman
Cinematography Alex Phillips Jr.
Edited by Pembroke J. Herring
Music by Benny Carter

Production companies: E & R Productions and Belafonte Enterprises

Distributed by Columbia Pictures

Release date: April 28, 1972 (New York City)

Running time: 102 minutes

Note

I am grateful to TCM for showing this Western on January 25, 2020.