Jamie Foxx's slave-turned-bounty hunter Django in this year's "Django Unchained" may be the fastest gun in the South, but he is definitely not the only black cowboy worth his salt. From as far back as the 1930s through the exploitation pictures of the '70s and into the present day, African Americans have been breaking the white cowboy stereotype by strapping on their own pair of spurs.
In anticipation of Quentin Tarantino's racially charged "southern" epic "Django," we're forming a posse of some of the most badass actors to ever climb on a horse and give filthy rustlers a fight. Have your pistols cocked, and get ready to ride, hombres, as we take a look back at the groundbreaking history of Black cowboys in film.
'Harlem on the Prairie' (Herb Jeffries, 1937)
In the late '30s, Herb Jeffries, at the time a popular singer for pianist Earl “Fatha” Hines, decided to strike out and make a string of black westerns, the first of their kind. Starting with "Harlem" and continuing as heroic character Bob Blake in low-budget, hour-long oaters like "The Bronze Buckaroo," he created a mini industry of race films that, despite their dated singing and tap dancing, were quite revolutionary. Jeffries is actually still alive at age 99, so we're not sure what he'll make of Tarantino's wild wild south…
'Sergeant Rutledge' (Woody Strode, 1960)
Arguably the greatest visionary of the old west, John Ford ("The Searchers") made a bold cinematic statement with this courtroom drama that finds 9th Cavalry Buffalo Solider Rutledge (Woody Strode) falsely accused of the rape and murder of a white woman at a U.S. Army fort. Although Jeffrey Hunter headlined, it's really Strode's movie, all the more progressive coming smack dab in the middle of a heated civil rights movement at the time. Strode would later appear in some of Tarantino's favorite spaghetti westerns like "Once Upon a Time in the West," and capped his career with Sam Raimi's "The Quick and the Dead" starring "Django" villain Leonardo DiCaprio.
'Skin Game' (Lou Gossett Jr., 1971)
A comedic take on slavery made prior to "Blazing Saddles," it concerns James Garner as Quincy Drew, a con man whose takes his best buddy/partner-in-crime Jason (Lou Gossett Jr.) from town to town selling him as a slave then both of them escape with the profits. Jason is a free man, but this subterfuge lands him in hot water when a savvy buyer catches on. The film features a great scene where they encounter historical abolitionist John Brown (Royal Dano). It was later remade for TV with… Lou Gossett Jr. in the same role!
'Man and Boy' (Bill Cosby, 1971)
Before he became synonymous with Jello Pudding and wearing sweaters, Bill Cosby was the biggest stand-up in the country. But for his debut starring role in a feature he chose this dramatic, by-the-numbers western. It chronicles a Civil War vet who takes his son on a quest to reclaim their stolen horse from a dangerous bandit. This conventional tale is made new again by having most of the principle cast played by African Americans, including the great Yaphet Kotto and the late Gloria Foster, better known as The Oracle from a little movie called "The Matrix."
'Buck and the Preacher' (Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte, 1972)
The premier black actor of his generation, Sidney Poitier made his directorial debut with this story of former slaves trying to stake their claim of the west in post-Civil War America. Calypso king Harry Belafonte is a crooked preacher who's trying to kill Buck (Poitier) so he can turn him in to a gang of crooked white folks, but they become pals and take on whitey in true groovy '70s spirit.
'Blazing Saddles' (Cleavon Little, 1974)
Comedy king Mel Brooks took the Mad Magazine approach to the wild west with this wildly anachronistic spoof of western tropes. Brooks and Harvey Korman appoint black railroad worker Bart (Cleavon Little) sheriff of Rock Ridge in an attempt to scare racist residents out of the frontier town, but the smart aleck lawman uses cartoon antics (and liberal fourth wall breaking) to defeat the bad guys. Brooks got co-writer Richard Pryor's blessing to drop a lot of irreverent n-bombs, but couldn't convince the studio to cast him in the lead.
'Silverado' (Danny Glover, 1985)
In an era of revisionist westerns, Lawrence Kasdan's "Silverado" was unapologetically old fashioned, but with a few unique twists. One of them was John Cleese as an English sheriff, and the other was Danny Glover as Mal, a genial-but-tough black cowboy who teams up with Kevin Kline and company. Lynn Whitfield co-stars as his sister, who he has to rescue from a rascally Jeff Goldblum. Glover is also given one of the best lines in western movie history: "Now I don't wanna kill you and you don't wanna be dead."
'Unforgiven' (Morgan Freeman, 1992)
If there's one abiding principle in this universe it's that you never, EVER let Will Munny get drunk. Munny is of course played by western legend Clint Eastwood, who waited over a decade to make what became his undisputed masterpiece, which enabled him to cast the equally well-aged Morgan Freeman as his ill-fated cohort Ned Logan. If Eastwood is the movie's weary soul, then Freeman's retired gunslinger is its heart. Winner of Best Picture and Best Director Academy Awards in 1992.
'Posse' (Mario Van Peebles, 1993)
At the height of his powers, director/star Mario Van Peebles went from "New Jack City" to 1800s New Orleans with this pleasantly cheesy, impeccably '90s affair featuring Big Daddy Kane, Tiny Lister, Tone Loc and token white guy Stephen Baldwin as a group of Buffalo Soldiers seeking justice… and gold! Oh, and let's not forget Intelligent Hoodlum's straight-up awesome single off the soundtrack: "It's The Posse! Shoot em up Shoot em up!" Narrated by none other than "Sergeant Rutledge" himself, Woody Strode.
'Wild Wild West' (Will Smith, 1999)
Much was expected from Will Smith and "Men in Black" helmer Barry Sonnenfeld's sophomore outing together, but this grotesque steampunk concoction is so reviled even Big Willie admitted it was a mistake. At $175-million it's certainly the grandest Afro-western to-date, but where Mel Brooks found pointed irreverence in racial humor in "Blazing Saddles," the gags here at lawman West's expense (baddie Kenneth Branagh puns about him being "a slave to disappointments") lack any semblance of wit. Curiously enough, Smith was Tarantino's No. 1 choice to take on the title role in "Django Unchained," but the Fresh Prince passed.