Among many conspicuous nods to cinema history in Jordan Peele’s Nope is a prominently displayed poster for Sidney Poitier’s 1972 directorial debut Buck and the Preacher. Peele’s film has a lot on its mind about Hollywood’s history with Black cowboys, both in front of and behind the camera. So it’s only natural that he’d include an allusion to this amiable and oft-overlooked Western, which starred Poitier and his old friend Harry Belafonte as a bickering duo assisting a wagon train full of recently emancipated slaves across a landscape where the locals are letting them know in no uncertain terms that they aren’t welcome.
Inspired the true-life tales of the “Exodusters” – Southern Blacks who headed West after the Civil War looking for opportunities beyond the sharecropping that was basically slavery all over again – the movie is much looser and less self-important than it sounds in synopsis. Buck and the Preacher wears its historical import lightly, with an easy humor that confounded more than a few critics. By this point in his career, the Oscar-winning Poitier’s name had become synonymous with a certain sort of prestige picture slightly starchier than this. (Interestingly, this most serious actor’s directorial efforts would trend to the comedic, including three successful late ‘70s Bill Cosby capers as well as the Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor pay-cable perennial Stir Crazy. We shall not speak of Ghost Dad.)
Not that this is exactly Blazing Saddles, mind you. The migrants who hired Buck have been regularly besieged by nightriders still wearing their Confederate coats. We witness long scenes of travelers being terrorized, their livestock killed and possessions pillaged, urged to turn back around and keep away from Kansas. Poitier and cheainematographer Alex Phillips Jr. pay particular attention to the vastness of the early American landscape; this is one of those Westerns where you’re always aware of how gall-durned long it used to take to get anywhere. And such trips weren’t easy on your animals.
Buck’s actually in need of a fresh horse when he happens upon Belafonte’s Preacher, bare-assed naked in the bath — a meet cute that doesn’t exactly get them off on the right foot. The handsome Calypso singer and television star has a grand old time playing such a mangy scoundrel, flashing a Cheshire grin of rotten teeth beneath scraggly whiskers. We’re not sure for the longest time exactly how much we’re supposed to trust this Preacher – a man of God who keeps a revolver tucked in the cutout pages of his oversized Bible. He could be on the side of the righteous, or it could be that he spotted the money belt full of $1400 being worn by one of the wagon train’s passengers.
After all that money is stolen by the marauders, Buck swears he’ll get it back. His wife (Ruby Dee, who’d previously played Poitier’s better half in Edge of the City and A Raisin in the Sun) protests that the settlers aren’t his personal responsibility, and though this will never be confused with one of Poitier’s more complex performances, the way he replies “I gave them my word,” is Movie Star Acting 101 and all the motivation you need to get a good, old fashioned Western rolling into its third act. Instead of pistols, Buck is packing two sawed-off shotguns in his holsters, causing an amusingly disproportionate amount of damage whenever he has to pull them. He and the Preacher are gonna go get that money back, no matter that the whites went and deposited it in the bank already.
Poitier and Belafonte fired the film’s original director — Joseph Sargent, later of The Taking of Pelham One, Two, Three fame and Jaws: The Revenge infamy – a few days into shooting, citing a lack of “important ethnic qualities.” Nonetheless, Buck and the Preacher failed to find an audience amid the burgeoning blaxploitation movement, possibly because Poitier was seen as too much of an establishment figure compared to Shaft and Superfly. But remains a film of simple, sturdy pleasures, not the least of which is watching Black cowboys team up with Native Americans to stick it to the man in the rousing final reel.