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Told in flashback, in 1898, Jessie Lee (Mario Van Peebles) leads the U.S. Army’s 10th Cavalry Regiment in battle in the Spanish-American War, but is facing heavy resistance and requests his men be allowed to pull back. At the command post, Colonel Graham (Billy Zane) gives Jessie an ultimatum, demanding that he shoot a deserter in order to retreat. Jessie can’t kill a fellow soldier so instead shows off his impressive marksmanship by shooting a cigar stuffed in the prisoner’s mouth by the Colonel. Distressed that Jessie seems to lack leadership skills, Graham strips him of command and puts another deserter, a white man named Little J (Stephen Baldwin) in his place. Then, he gives the unit new orders. They are to undertake a daring, secret mission. Dressed in civilian clothes, they are to rob a Spanish supply train holding a shipment of gold. But it’s trap, designed to give Colonel all the money and an excuse to execute the men for desertion.
As Graham and his men surround the few members of the 10th, it looks like he will murder them all, but an inside man on the Colonel’s side distracts the commander and a gunfight ensues that looks to have killed Graham while Jessie and his men flee. They find passage out of Cuba and into New orleans where the small band meet others and form a ‘posse’ but are shocked to learn that Graham is still alive and on their tail. They ride west while Jessie begins the hunt to find and kill the men who lynched his father, ‘haunted’ by the demons of that tragedy. Using bullets forged from gold, he tracks them down as they head to Freemanville, a town populated entirely by African Americans and policed by Jessie’s good friend, Sheriff Carver (Blair Underwood). In the next town over, Sheriff Bates (Richard Jordan) learns that Jessie has returned, and fearing he is here for revenge on what Bates did to his father, concocts a plan to rid the town of Jessie and end this quest for good.
Directed by and starring Mario Van Peeples, Posse is a heavily-stylized Western action film that features a strong cast of (at the time) popular black actors and musicians, along with some notable white names as well. Concentrating a lot on how the film looked, experimenting with some interesting camera work, the film spends less time on developing quality characters and a truly compelling plot. Even now, in a time when many action movies use spastic editing to tell their stories, Posse’s camera is a bit of a distraction, never settling down for even a moment, constantly swaying and turing and revolving around the actors in odd angles and motions. Furthermore, there is a feeling that the film wants to be a kind of comic book story, as the performances are all well over-the-top and exaggerated. Zane, who’s made a kind of career acting in this manner, is the most egregious of the lot, like a silent film villain suddenly given voice, sneering and leering throughout. But he’s not alone. Tone-Loc, playing Angel, grimaces and lurches about while Obobo (Tiny Lister) punches a horse (a specific trope in movies that never makes sense) and Baldwin is his usual self. For a bit of the film, it kind of feels funny, like we’re supposed to be laughing, but the themes and Peebles’ directional tone never lead all the way there.
The Western was experiencing a massive revival in this era, though technically they had always been around. The Young Guns two-film series, ending in 1990 had a following, but it is was arguably Kevin Costner’s award-winning Dances With Wolves (1990) that created the greatest interest, igniting a wildfire of films in the genre like Clint Eastwood‘s Unforgiven (1992) and Kurt Russell‘s Tombstone (1993) to mention only a few. So very few featured black actors, let alone in the leads. Peeples, who comes from a family of film makers, wanted to tell the story of an often disregarded side of American history, making note of it especially in the closing credits, where the West was home to many black cowboys. Hollywood had, in particular, elevated the white cowboy to legendary status and Peeples felt that there were stories involving black cowboys that needed to be told.
That said, Peeples takes the standards and flips them around, giving the gang a token white guy (Baldwin) and then attempting to repaint the history we’re used to seeing, though sticks pretty vigorously to what the genre has already made popular, including the posturing hero, middle of the street gunfights, and lots of squinty stares. Peeples didn’t care much about anachronisms and purposefully gave the 1890s characters a 1990s attitude, something audiences could identify with, an MTV Hip-Hop style western that exposed viewers to a time left out of history books but with a modern sensibility. It didn’t always work, and looking at it now, even less so. Still, his cast is impressive, from Isaac Hayes to Pam Grier, the black cameos are plentiful.
There is some value here though, and if anything, Peeples is right. Plenty of stories could be made with black cowboys. In an age where remakes and reboots are increasingly becoming standard, perhaps Posse is one that should be on somebody’s list. Mr. Peeples could even be its director. With the success of Quentin Tarantino‘s Django Unchained and the recently announced remake of The Magnificent Seven with Denzel Washington serving as proof, the time is right for revisiting this story and giving it a more grounded, grittier feel. A near all-black cast in a Western would have a lot of potential, and be able to raise just as many questions about the expectations of the classic genre while giving light to some much-needed history. While the story could essentially remain the same (the Spanish-American War is itself something that could be explored), the tone would need to me more authentic rather than comical. The drama behind these men and their long storied pasts would be the pillars to which a powerful story of revenge could be crafted. Abandoning the tropes of the genre, a new Posse could, like the recently brilliant Bone Tomahawk, take us in a new direction and give these characters great depth. It’s time for Posse remake.
Mario Van Peebles
Sy Richardson, Dario Scardapane
Mario Van Peebles, Tone Loc, Tommy ‘Tiny’ Lister, Bid Daddy Kane, Billy Zane, Blair Underwood, Stephen Baldwin, Charles Lane