Hell on the Border
The first black U.S. Marshall deputy west of the Mississippi Bass Reeves tackles violent offenders in Arkansas and the Oklahoma territory in this western.
When Bass Reeves (David Gyasi) first appears, he’s a hired assistant to a white U.S. Marshal, and he hauls racist outlaw Charlie Strong (Ron Perlman) out of a swamp. After the white marshals block Reeves from becoming a deputy, he sets out after outlaw Bob Dozier (Frank Grillo), when the rest of the marshals are too afraid to pursue Dozier. Forced to take another rider with him, Reeves is paired with Strong, who wants to see his charges dropped. Together, the two track Dozier who attempts to turn the tables on them.
Hell on the Border is an outlier in that it’s a western (we need more of those!) but it also depicts a black cowboy, a lawman no less. The opening screen of the film shares, “We didn’t write the books. We didn’t produce the movies. So we were politely deleted. ‘There is a conspicuous absence of the black cowboy recorded in the history of America.’ This quote by Tricia Martineau Wagner sets the stage for where we are going in the film’s ideology, highlighting a grave injustice in our history books. [It’s proposed elsewhere that Reeves may be the real-life character behind The Lone Ranger, so how is it that most audiences won’t have heard of him?]
While there’s a basic formula to the plot – that a good guy pursues a bad guy over tough terrain and against great injustices – the truth is that director Wes Miller’s script points out more about a real-life faith than the average action flick. Reeves prays, the music he sings and that serves as a soundtrack speaks to faith, and Reeves’ life of faith impacts Strong for the good. It’s not just that Reeves’ conviction about his own standing as a lawman speaks but his conviction about his faith speaks through his actions, too. Faith-based audiences will appreciate that Reeves’ life (and language) reflect what he believes, even while those around him may not live as nobly. Reeves’ character shines through as he proves to be David to Dozier’s Goliath, even while the men who should be on Reeves’ side prove to be the jeering mob egging the Goliath on to victory.
In a world searching desperately for heroes, it’s a shame it took this story of Bass Reeves this long to be told. But discerning audiences seeking a good story of resilience, the confrontation of racism, a western, and a model of faithful existence will appreciate this western that speaks to so much more. Unfortunately, due to language and violence, Hell on the Border cannot be Dove-approved
The Dove Take:
Language and violence are heavy, but discerning audiences will appreciate the way that Reeves’ faith is portrayed as both a comfort and a guide to him.