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Bass Reeves

Austin Film Festival: ‘Lawmen: Bass Reeves’ – An Untold Story with David Oyelowo

If I were to challenge you to think of an Old West movie with a Black lawman, you might think of Mel Brooks’ comedy classic, Blazing Saddles. But a series which premiered at Austin Film Festival, Lawmen: Bass Reeves, gives a much more exciting and fact-based look at the life of one of the first Black U.S. deputy marshals.

The Austin Film Festival (AFF) focuses on recognizing writers’ and filmmakers’ contributions to film, television, and new media. Its 2023 run went from October 26 to November 2.

Bass Reeves

The co-directors and writer/creator of Lawmen: Bass Reeves spoke twice, at an AFF panel session and after the screening of the first episode of the series, which is now streaming on Paramount+.

The Source

Even though I was a big fan of the Old West and movie and TV westerns, I had never heard of Bass Reeves before I was introduced to this show. The era after the Civil War was almost as chaotic as the war itself. Documentation of the era was sparse and splintered. There was enough information about Bass Reeves, however, to catch the attention of historians who pieced together his story.

Bass Reeves
Sidney Thompson wrote three books detailing Reeves’ life

The series draws primarily from the work of Sidney Thompson, professor of creative writing and African American literature at Texas Christian University. Thompson wrote three books detailing Reeves’ life. That life spans an heroic journey from slave to lawman famous for bringing 3,000 outlaws to justice. Some have suggested that Reeves’ life may have inspired the legend of the Lone Ranger.

Reeves, born into slavery in Arkansas in 1838, served an Arkansas politician, William Steele Reeves. When the Civil War broke out, William’s son, Colonel George Reeves, brought Bass with him to fight for the Confederacy. This is where the first episode of Lawmen: Bass Reeves begins.

The Series

In the first episode, we are dropped into a battle between North and South. Bass Reeves, played by David Oyelowo (Selma, The Water Man), learns to fight to survive. The story in episode one constitutes an epic hero’s journey in itself. Slavery, freedom, misery, a new life, and loss again confront the hero.

Bass Reeves
‘Lawmen: Bass Reeves’ vividly portrays the Civil War

Oyelowo does an amazing job portraying the suffering and joy Reeves felt on his journey.

The team of writer/creator Chad Feehan, co-director Christina Voros, and co-director Damian Marcano shared with AFF attendees some of their thoughts about creating the show.

Voros, who previously directed Yellowstone and 1883, directed five episodes of this show. She admitted it was a challenge. “This was my first pilot as a director,” she explained, “and it was a little intimidating. Being tasked with shooting the Civil War in four days will keep you up at night.

“But the opportunity to work with David Oyelowo not only as an actor but as a producer gave you wings. With such talented people you get to sit back and kind of nudge this way and nudge that way to get it to be what it was on the page.”

Marcano directed three episodes. He said, “I’m looking for lightning in the bottle. There needs to be something in the story that connects with each and every one of you. I was always the guy who fell asleep during history class, but the writers were able to write things that made me connect with it every day.”

How to Write It

One of the writers Marcano referred to shared the stage with him. Chad Feehan (Ray Donavan, Rectify) reflected on his personal connection with the story. “David has been trying to make this story since 2019. I grew up around Fort Worth, so I heard stories about Bass Reeves as a child. I used what I had learned to inspire the pilot.”

Bass Reeves
Writer Chad Feehan, Co-Director Christina Voros, and Co-Director Damian Marcano at Austin Film Festival

Feehan also credited some of his life experience for helping him create the character of Jennie, Bass’s wife, played by Lauren Banks. He explained, “Doing a story from 159 years ago you need to find things to connect to personally. I was raised by an incredibly strong mother and married to a strong woman. I wanted to honor both of those women in my life with the character of Jennie.”

Feehan also gave credit to historian Sidney Thompson for helping him fill in the blanks.

Watch It

As of this writing, you can watch the first episode for free and then continue with the story of Lawmen: Bass Reeves as episodes are released on Paramount+. You’ll notice that the series uses the word “lawmen” not “lawman” in its title. Nothing is confirmed yet, but if this season is a hit, the stories of more lawmen could follow.

For information about next year’s AFF, or the festival’s year-round events schedule, check its website, X postings, or Facebook page.

About Leo Sopicki

Writer, photographer, graphic artist and technologist. I focus my creative efforts on celebrating the American virtues of self-reliance, individual initiative, volunteerism, tolerance and a healthy suspicion of power and authority.

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