Posse (1993): Mario Van Peebles’ Attempt at Hip-Hop Western

Mario Van Peebles’s second, independent film, Posse is a failed effort at a hip-hop Western, flaunting garish style at the expense of coherent narrative or sharp characterization.

Posse poster.jpg

Theatrical release poster

Grade: C (* 1/2* out of *****)

Posse was the first film to be released by Gramercy Pictures, which would eventually become Focus Features.

The motivation for making the film was no doubt honorable: Posse pas tribute to the black frontiers people, previously ignored in Hollywood Westerns. In a narration that recalls Little Big Man, Woody Strode tells the audience about a hidden history–the Wild West we don’t know.

However, except for featuring black performers in leading roles, Posse didn’t break any new ground as a revisionist Western.

Van Peebles endows the tale of a racially integrated unit, battling a corrupt Calvary and land-grabbing Ku Klux Klans, with flamboyance, going over the top, as if his driving force was to outshine Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood’s spaghetti Westerns. Screenwriters Sy Richardson and Dario Scardapane employ familiar motifs with allusions to The Magnificent Seven, High Noon, The Wild Bunch and others. Jesse wears an Eastwood poncho, a fierce squint and a “Man With No Name” black hat. Imitative of baroque Westerns, the movie’s MTV style score mixes Michel Colombier, blues and rap.

Jesse Lee and the “Buffalo Soldiers,” the black infantry that fought in the Spanish-American War, return to the West as outlaw-deserters. They are hounded by a corrupt officer (Billy Zane) who betrays them. Jesse becomes the reticent leader of the fugitives, all black, except for one white soldier. Thee revenge story is cliched: Jesse returns home to avenge the death of his preacher father and finds that Freemanville is besieged by a crooked white sheriff (Richard Jordan) and his black partner (Blair Underwood), who want to sell the town to the railroad.

The cast includes blaxploitation cult figures Pam Grier and Isaac Hayes, as well as Robert Hooks, Paul Bartel, Nipsey Russell, and Mario’s father, Melvin Van Peebles, as a wise patriarch. There are barroom brawls and desert treks, jailbreaks, bordello blowouts, and an updated character, a schoolmarm with R-rated scenes in a boudoir. Van Peebles perceives the group as “an eclectic Robin Hood posse with a mission and a sense of values,” but the two genres don’t mix. When Jesse hits Freemanville and switches from Posse head to a loner with a wounded past, the camaraderie is dropped. Attempting to be a neo-Western, revisionist morality play, and tribute to black cowboys, Posse was incoherent and anachronistic, with liberal speeches that reflected contemporary attitudes.

The story ends almost a century later with an old man (Woody Strode) being interviewed by reporters (Reginald Hudlin, Warrington Hudlin) about the black cowboys of the Old West. The man, who was a young boy when he met Jesse in Freemanville, gives the reporters a small book that Jesse had given him.

In the end, a caption tells us that there had been over 8,000 black cowboys in the Old West whose stories had never been told due to “omission” by Hollywood.

A moderate success, it grossed $18.2 million in the U.S. ($8.555 million in rentals) against a budget of $8 million.

Mario Van Peebles as Jesse Lee
Stephen Baldwin as Little J
Billy Zane as Colonel Graham
Tone-Lōc as Angel
Melvin Van Peebles as Papa Joe
Tiny Lister as Obobo
Big Daddy Kane as Father Time
Reginald VelJohnson as Preston
Blair Underwood as Carver
Isaac Hayes as Cable
Charles Lane as Weezie
Robert Hooks as King David
Richard Jordan as Sheriff Bates
Pam Grier as Phoebe
Nipsey Russell as Snopes
Paul Bartel as Mayor Bigwood
Salli Richardson as Lana
Woody Strode as Storyteller
Aaron Neville as Railroad Singer
Reginald Hudlin as Reporter #1
Warrington Hudlin as Reporter #2
Richard Gant as Doubletree
Richard Edson as Deputy Tom
Stephen J. Cannell as Jimmy Love
Scott Bray as The Fire Eater
Vesta as Vera
Faizon Love as John
T.J. McClain as LA Slim