To shoot holes in the myth of the wild, white West, Mario Van Peebles (New Jack City) saddles up a posse that includes rappers Big Daddy Kane and Tone Loc, wrestler Tiny Lister Jr. and filmmaker Charles Lane. These black cowboys are not just a New Jack gimmick to sell tickets; they also help correct the neglect of blacks in books and movies about the Old West. Posse is rousing entertainment directed by Van Peebles with a rare sense of purpose and mischief. He wants to tackle racism on the range, but he knows that when it comes to getting your attention, a sermon is no match for a hip-hop, party-on shoot’em-up. Coincidentally, Posse opens the same week as a revival of the 1956 classic The Searchers, an attack on racism that some mistook for a typical John Wayne horse opera.
With a soundtrack that moves from the soul of Aaron Neville to the rap of Tragedy, Posse also covers a wide arc of black cinema. Melvin Van Peebles, father of Mario and black independent film, does a sharp cameo. You’ll also spot Shaft composer Isaac Hayes and Foxy Brown star Pam Grier, among others. In an inspired stroke, actor Woody Strode — a pioneer black cowboy (Sergeant Rutledge) — plays the narrator and delivers hilarious gibes. Take the “discovery” of America when Indians were already there: “That’s like me saying, ‘I discovered your car.'”
Strode then leads us into the tale of Jessie Lee (Van Peebles), an infantryman fighting the Spanish-American War in Cuba. Under the command of Colonel Graham (Billy Zane), a white sadist, Jessie Lee is driven to desert the army. Joining him are the gentle giant Obobo (Lister), the fast-talking Weezie (Lane), the stogie-chewing Angel (Tone Loc) and the sassy Little J (Stephen Baldwin), a white soldier who hangs with the brothers. In a New Orleans whorehouse, the posse hooks up with Father Time, a dandyish gambler played with badass, honey-tongued charm by Big Daddy Kane. It’s fun to watch these canny actors enliven stock figures, since the hot-damn pace set by Van Peebles and editor Mark Conte allows only for characterization on the fly.
Van Peebles holds back at first; he makes Eastwood’s taciturn Man With No Name sound like a blabbermouth. But his magnetic performance soon finds the character’s wounded core. Flashbacks show that Jessie Lee is the son of King David (Robert Hooks), a preacher murdered by the KKK for building Freemanville, a black town founded on education. Sy Richardson, who wrote the heartfelt script with Dario Scardapane, had a grandfather who built a similar town. Pulses race when Jessie Lee rides home with his posse.
The scene is right out of The Magnificent Seven. In fact, it’s hard to find a scene in Posse that doesn’t have an antecedent. Maybe Van Peebles can’t make up for years of neglect with one renegade, low-budget ($8.5 million) film. But he sure as hell tries. With the help of cinematographer Peter Menzies Jr., he re-creates moments from westerns (Once Upon a Time in the West, The Wild Bunch, Young Guns) and integrates them with black faces. You can almost hear him behind the camera, laughing.
Van Peebles also keeps his serious goals in sight. He makes the besieged multicultural community of Freemanville as relevant as South Central. When white deputies from a nearby town, led by the bigoted Sheriff Bates (Richard Jordan), beat up on the posse, any similarities to the Rodney King beating are purely intentional. But Van Peebles avoids stereotypes. It’s the white Little J who’s the victim. And it’s Carver (Blair Underwood), the greedy black lawman, who’s the villain.
Van Peebles sometimes trips over his ambitions. When Jessie Lee rides toward the sheriff’s Gatling gun, a stick of dynamite in his mouth, he’s no longer avenging his father but fighting to keep King David’s dream alive. It’s a distinction that might get lost on action junkies who only want to get their rocks off. As Van Peebles turns the western into an equal-opportunity genre, his voice occasionally fades in the din. But be assured: It’s a voice spoiling to be heard.