THE film Buck and the Preacher (Cert. 12A) is about a black scout, played by Sidney Poitier, who, Moses-like, leads the St Anne’s Wagon Train of liberated slaves to the promised land of Colorado. Released in 1972, the film has been digitally remastered, and is now back in cinemas, as well as on digital platforms. It portrays a perilous journey in flight from Louisiana bounty-hunters intent on returning blacks to the cruel control of their former masters.
The film takes the much favoured form of a comic buddy-buddy story. An unholy alliance grows between Buck and a pistol-packing, Bible-thumping preacher (Harry Belafonte), the Revd Willis Oaks Rutherford. The screenplay by Ernest Kinnoy (who wrote Roots) is a tribute to African Americans who reached safety and those who were murdered on the way. His experience as a Jewish prisoner-of-war under the Nazis no doubt helped to inform the film’s righteous anger.
Poitier, in this his debut as a director, fully exploits it. The rule that the good guys in Westerns are those wearing white hats is modified here: they are anyone with a Colgate set of gnashers. The baddies, the powerful oppressors, don’t have any — except for Belafonte. Multi-coloured molars reflect the moral ambiguity of his character. This Elmer Gantry-type con artist, styling himself pastor of the High and Low Order of the Holy Persuasion Church, sweet-talks his way through life. It is unlikely that he has a congregation. Being offered a $500 reward for delivering Buck to his hunters seems a done deal.
But Preacher is one of those who are wise as serpents and harmless as doves. We learn about his wretched upbringing from someone else similarly posturing as a man of the cloth. The difference is that a hilarious Belafonte develops spiritually. Less is revealed about Buck’s background. We do know that he served as a sergeant in the Union Army. He has business ties with Native Americans who, to an extent, act as guardian angels for the share-croppers seeking a new world. Their chief (Enrique Lucero) is not averse to pointing out that African American soldiers are among those bent on exterminating his tribe.
The abuse of Indians by so-called brothers has the effect of ratcheting up Buck and Preacher’s sense of ethical outrage . This film made a contribution to highlighting the mistreatment of Native Americans. Buck and the Preacher has proved to be a landmark, reminding us that the Exodus story continues. In every generation, there are wrongs to be righted, whenever the cry goes up to “let my people go.” Whether America’s past racism can ever be atoned for, and what that atonement would consist of, God only knows. Poitier’s film doesn’t.