The classic American western, a product of the twentieth century, was a fantasy. Likelihood has never been his goal. Blacks were clearly absent from those hymns to society that white Americans envisioned for their ancestors: tough, independent, righteous, and bound by an often chimerical moral code. Regardless, the genre is now revered by all (including black fans) as the ultimate vehicle by which people declare their freedom, independence, morality, and general wickedness.
Freedom. Freedom to right wrongs. Freedom to fight back. Freedom to take revenge. These are freedoms denied to blacks throughout American history. We are not even allowed to openly contemplate revenge for centuries of slavery, brutality, rape and other forms of violence that we suffer. To deprive ourselves of thoughts of retaliation that would afflict any human being treated as we have been is just another form of denying our full humanity.
The Netflix movie The more they fall, as with other recent films like Django Unchained and The birth of a nation, try to right this wrong and mythologize black historical figures as independent rebels who take no shit, and will kill you for saying a word that even departures with “N.” The film, directed by Jeymes Samuel, employs historical figures, but makes up entirely new stories about their lives. These characters include Cherokee Bill (Lakeith Stanfield), a half-Cherokee, half-black outlaw raised by his black grandmother; Bill Pickett (Edi Gathegi), a cowboy and artist from the Wild West; and Bass Reeves (Delroy Lindo), an American Deputy Marshal who worked in what was then “Indian Territory” – today’s Oklahoma.
Then there is Rufus Buck, a historical figure who was fascinating, enigmatically unique. In the film, Buck is played by Idris Elba, who is 49 years old. However, the real Buck was 21 years old at most when he was executed by order of the “suspended judge” Isaac Parker in 1895. This is the first, but not the last, the liberty the film takes to adapt its story. . Buck’s real life, or whatever we can take from it, deserves its own scene. That’s why I wrote the historical novel I dreamed that I was in heaven: the rampage of the Rufus Buck gang.
Specific information on Buck is available, but there is nothing close to a detailed life story. There are tapes of his arrests and press accounts, but these cannot be fully relied upon, as advocacy journalism at the time described black and Indigenous offenders as particularly evil and threatening. Buck went from a very young man, arrested and jailed for selling illicit alcohol, to the most wanted man in Indian territory. Through all accounts, his gang threatened, maimed, killed, terrorized and raped, placing him in the league of a Jesse James.
The fascinating question is “Why? How do you evolve, in such a short time, from aficionado of reading outlaw pamphlets, to the most feared man in the whole Territory? This is the story I tried to tell, and it involved more than Buck and other outlaws. It involved politics, history, and the trajectory of America itself.
It is clear that the young age of the real Buck was important to his story; the two-week rampage he led was that of a teenager, with all the rage and levity that implies. The film, on the other hand, shows Elba’s Rufus Buck as a mature, hardcore killer, doing his business in a predominantly black world. But the real Buck was just a petty offender before his famous rampage. No experienced gunslinger, he also lived on the opposite side of a racially homogeneous society.
In fact, the multicultural environment of the historic Buck clearly played a big role in its development. In 1895, there were more whites in Indian territory than Indians, and the US government was on the verge of absorbing the land for white settlement. The Territories also included freed cities: black enclaves founded by former slaves. Buck himself attended a Christian mission school run by a white man. Buck was multiracial. Her father was half Creek Indian and her mother was black. Placing it in a predominantly black context may serve the purposes of the film, but it strips Buck of its backstory. Ditto for having expelled him from Indian territory.
More importantly, the film omits Buck’s stated mission: the cleansing of whites from Indian territory. He had lived his life there and, just like current viewers of films like The more they fall, he would have been fascinated by the pulp pamphlet stories of black and Indian outlaws. The characters in these were “free” to do whatever they wanted and didn’t make fun of anyone – critical for a youngster attending a mission school who punished him for speaking his Creek native language. His very exposure to the white world drove Rufus Buck.
Through his father Creek, the young Buck had absorbed the Indian genocide and saw the Dawes law stripping the tribes of their traditional land rights in Indian territory. His mother probably endured some form of bondage. He watched over the last refuge of his people snatched from them, and in truly American fashion, he took on the impossible task of crushing the march of the American Goliath with his little band of five. He supposed that once he started, all the Natives and Blacks of the Territory would join him, rise up and eliminate the white usurpers; he would be the messiah of his people. He was grotesquely wrong; instead, whites, blacks, and Indians banded together to hunt him down.
The real Rufus Buck may have crossed paths with Cherokee Bill (real name Crawford Goldsby) at Fort Smith Prison just outside Indian Territory. However, Buck and Bill were never in the same gang, as the movie shows – at most, they may have met behind bars. Surprisingly young, Buck and Bill were both hanged around the age of 20 by order of “hanging judge” Isaac Parker, a white man – the same man who convicted Buck of selling alcohol.
I consider Parker’s role in Buck’s saga crucial, but the film omits this character. In a strange historical irony, the same forces that drove Buck to his crusade – the final assimilation of Indian lands by the United States in the region – stripped Parker of his power after 20 years as the only law in the vast Indian territory. The dissolution of Indian territory killed the project Parker had devoted his life to. He died shortly after presiding over the Buck Gang executions.
The turn of the century would end Indian Territory, Buck, Cherokee Bill, and the white man who condemned them. It would also end Buck’s dream, the illusion of Indigenous sovereignty, and the Old West itself. The more they fall is a wish fulfillment game, suitable for casual use of the western genre. However, the real stories of some of the outlaws named in the film carry significant historical and dramatic weight to burn awareness and help reorganize our understanding of the American West and America itself.