Buck and the Preacher (1972): Poitier’s Directing Debut, 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 stars alongside Harry Belafonte and Ruby Dee.

This film broke Hollywood traditions by casting black actors as central characters and portraying both tension and solidarity between African Americans and Native Americans in the late 19th century.

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 west to the unsettled territories of Kansas. In order to ensure safe passage and food for his company, Buck negotiates with the Native Americans in the area. He pays them, and in turn they allow him to kill limited numbers of buffalo to eat, and to pass through their land providing they do it quickly.

Some white men are hired by plantation owners in Louisiana to raid the African American wagon trains and settlements to either scare them back to Louisiana or kill them. The raiders attempt to kill Buck by setting a trap at his home. However, warned by his wife, Ruth (Ruby Dee), he escapes.

While in flight he meets Reverend Willis Oaks Rutherford (Harry Belafonte), a mysterious man masquerading as a preacher, and forces the Reverend to switch horses with him.

The Preacher changes his mind and decides to work with Buck after seeing the carnage the white raiders inflict on the African American travelers.

In the end, Buck, Ruth and the Preacher ambush some raiders in a brothel, rob a bank, and take on the entire band of raiders.

The blues musicians Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, and Don Frank Brooks performed in the soundtrack, composed by jazz great Benny Carter.

Made on a budget of $2 million, the film received mixed reviews but did not perform well at the box office. It was released during the height of blaxploitation, a wave of entertaining black films, such as Shaft and Coffy.

Uneven, some sequences are breezy and entertaining while others are slow and repetitive. Even so, though first-time director, Poitier shows skill for staging some scenes–especially those with Belafonte–with easy and unguarded humor.

Note

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