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‘Posse’ (R)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
May 14, 1993

"Posse," a hippity-hop Western from Mario Van Peebles, finally hoists blacks into the mainstream saddle. But it's no outlandish, Afrocentric conceit.

From the all-black 9th and 10th cavalries to outlaws like Cherokee Bill, blacks figured enormously in the Wild West. Between 1870 and 1900, at least 1 million blacks crossed the Mississippi for points west. Former slaves founded all-black towns, like Nicodemus, Kan. One out of three cowboys was black.

The only place you couldn't find blacks was Hollywood.

In the movie, set during the Spanish-American War, sharpshooter Van Peebles and other "buffalo" soldiers (so-named because of their bisonlike tenacity -- and hair) are stationed in Cuba, chasing down the last of the enemy. Dispatched by tyrannical commander Billy Zane on a killing raid, Van Peebles realizes Zane has a treacherous agenda.

With a band of sidekicks -- and a chest of gold pieces -- he deserts and makes a renegade run for the West. With Zane and his white followers a short ride behind, Van Peebles and company make a beeline out West for (fictional) Freemanville, his fledgling black hometown. Now run by black sheriff Blair Underwood, it's threatened from within by civic disagreement and, from without, by white marauders and the coming of a railroad. Van Peebles also has an old score to settle there.

Rooting the story in black folklore (based loosely on real stories screenwriter Sy Richardson learned from his ancestors), "Posse" unfurls the political banner. The result is a sort of "Magnificent Six," with fugitive Van Peebles leading five others, including Big Daddy Kane, Tone Loc and Charles Lane, into the self-determinist sunset. Joining the gang, incidentally, is outlaw Stephen Baldwin, who may be the first token white in a Western. Another little known fact: There are more Baldwin brothers acting in the movies today than there were blacks in the 9th Cavalry.

With the exploitative brashness and twice the volume of his "New Jack City," Van Peebles mixes rap with rawhide for a deliriously exaggerated entertainment. He also cannily fuses the generations of black cinema, from old-time black movie star Woody Strode to '70s cult-45's Isaac Hayes, Pam Grier, Robert Hooks and Melvin Van Peebles (the director's father). In this funky revisionism, anything black goes. It's hard to imagine a cowboy of color in 1897 saying (in the most printable anachronism), "Can I kill the cracker right now?"

But the point is to break cultural ground and have a blast doing it. The Western offers a set of options wider than Monument Valley, as "Blazing Saddles," "The Road Warrior," "Tampopo" and even "Thelma & Louise" have demonstrated. From the old Tom Mix movies to MTV-generation romps like "Young Guns," American Westerns have never reflected history -- just what Hollywood fancied about it. Van Peebles has simply saddled up his fancy and let it ride.

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