Say what you will about the streaming era, but sometimes a platform can decide to elevate an obscurity, and it suddenly finds a new life. Take, for example, Gordon Parks Jr.’s Thomasine & Bushrod, which is currently featured in not one, but two Criterion Channel programs: last month’s “Lovers on the Run” series, and a new rotation titled “Black Westerns.” That’s a pretty stellar endorsement for a film that’s been all but forgotten since its 1974 release, and for no good reason: the younger Parks had, after all, helped put Blaxpoitation on the map with his previous (and first) film Super Fly, while Max Julien had just played the title character of another Blaxpoitation classic, The Mack, the year before.
You get a sense that both men were taking advantage of success when they decided to collaborate on a Western – a genre that was much harder to make on the shoestring budgets afforded to Black filmmakers than the urban crime pictures they’d made their names with. But Julien, who also co-produced and penned the screenplay, wasn’t trying to make another Super Fly or Mack; his transparent inspiration was Bonnie and Clyde. As with Arthur Penn’s 1967 groundbreaker, Thomasine & Bushrod concerns a good-looking, bank-robbing couple who become sensations of early media, embarking on a crime spree while taunting the lawman in pursuit. Both are period movies with contemporary sensibilities; just as Penn’s film explored the anti-authoritarian undercurrents of the late 1960s, Thomasine mines the fertile soil of race relations in the post-Civil War era (and how, in many ways, little had changed by the mid-1970s). Both films conclude with – spoiler – the shockingly bloody deaths of their attractive protagonists. Even the title is an echo, down to the ladies-first ordering.
You can tell Julien wrote it, and wrote himself the juiciest possible role: gets to act tough, be cool, romance Vonetta McGee, and look great in his cowboy duds. But it’s not a one-man show; we meet McGee’s Thomasine first, and she gets a great entrance, luring a scuzzy white criminal into a honey trap before revealing she’s a bounty hunter. And he builds in a smooth fake-out, staging the initial action to make it seem that Julien’s H.T. Bushrod, a wanted man, is her next target – when, in fact, he’s her long-time love. Julien gives her a fully-formed character, and she plays it to the hilt, with real complexity and flaws. (The bounty hunter angle is, in addition to the tone and look of the picture, a clear influence on a certain Blaxpoitation-championing filmmaker; if Tarantino didn’t screen this while prepping Django Unchained, I’ll eat my hat.)
Julien and McGee are a great-looking couple with easy-breezy chemistry, and it’s unsurprising to learn that they were off-screen lovers as well. Their relationship is the foundation upon which the movie is built – the idea that they’re not just robbing banks for thrills or notoriety (as Bonnie and Clyde were), but that they’re building a life together. “Whatever we have to do to stay alive, we’ll do it,” he assures her. “No matter what it is.” So there’s a warmth here that’s genuine, and carries the story through its rockier passages.
But there’s much more going on here, obviously. As the Criterion program makes clear, there were not a lot of Black Westerns; when Bushrod encounters another Black man early in the film, he takes pains to get his name, because “There aren’t too many of us around.” And the extra dimension of race gives additional layers of danger and subversion to the couple’s crime spree; as the snooty white woman photographer explains, “They’re so bold! Look at what they did! Negroes don’t do things like that. Negroes sing and dance and steal chickens. They don’t rob banks!”
Thomasine & Bushrod occasionally shows the seams of its meager budget – low-rent sets, low-wattage supporting players, a few draggy scenes, etc. But the wide open spaces of this corner of the West are nicely showcased, and no wonder; the cinematographer is Lucien Ballard, whose extensive Western CV included The Wild Bunch, True Grit, The Sons of Katie Elder, Ride the High Country, and Buchanan Rides Alone.
And most importantly, it’s a stellar showcase for Max Julien, one of the most enigmatic actors of the era. His career is a bit of a puzzle: augmenting his distinguished stage work (including Papp’s Shakespeare in the Park) with small roles in exploitation movies and television in the late 1960s and early 1970s, he graduated into leading roles, and cinema immortality, with The Mack in 1973. He wrote and produced Cleopatra Jones the same year (reportedly for McGee, though Tamara Dobson was ultimately cast), wrote, produced, and starred in Thomasine & Bushrod in 1974… and then, basically, disappeared. He wasn’t seen in a single film between 1974 and 1997, when he made a winking cameo in Def Jam’s How to Be a Player, and he hasn’t appeared in a feature film since.
From the limitless charisma and offhand naturalism showcased in his precious few films, he clearly could’ve been a major mainstream star; he also could’ve gone the Fred Williamson route, creating his own projects as a writer, producer, and actor. Instead, he made Thomasine & Bushrod and then, appropriately enough, simply rode off into the sunset.