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Lawmen: Bass Reeves

101 Studios, 2023

45 minutes


Chad Feehan

Reading Time:

6 minutes

📷 : Licensed from Shutterstock

Lawmen: Bass ReevesSaddle Up (9QA0KKDY5QU5JQER)
00:00 / 07:36

Lawmen: Bass Reeves

Masala Chai

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Movies and TV shows about toughness and athletic competition


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Movies and TV shows with intense action

Reba Chaisson


Lawmen: Bass Reeves, the 2023 Paramount+ limited series based on a true story, puts the notions of fear and respect front and center. The intense, action-filled story follows the life and career of a Black deputy U.S. marshal in the postbellum South.


Recently freed from enslavement, Deputy Marshal Reeves has been hired by Judge Parker (Donald Sutherland) to travel his Southern district to catch people wanted for serious crimes such as robbery and murder. A self-assured and deeply religious man, Bass, played by David Oyelowo (Selma, The Butler), traverses Arkansas and what is now Oklahoma perched atop his horse. Combined with his badge, the two place him at a physical and social focal point that forces his captives and others to look up to him and acknowledge his position of authority. Indeed, much of the 8-part series shows Reeves on his horse with his badge visible, likely creator Chad Feehan’s goal of presenting a stark contrast to the previously low social level Reeves was relegated to when slavery was a legal and accepted practice just a few years prior.

For historical context, after the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, the South underwent Reconstruction from 1867-1877. During this period, Blacks were granted citizenship and the right to vote with the 14th and 15th Amendments, respectively. Public schools and colleges were constructed for Black students, and Black men were elected to state legislatures in the South with some even serving in Congress. This was a tenuous period with many White people still reeling from the forced release of their centuries-long grip of Black people that they had become accustomed to seeing as objects and legally treating as property. Thus, the idea of a Black man freely traversing the South arresting people with the power of a marshal's badge is, to say the least, astounding, not only for some White people in this era, but even for some who are Black.

For many White Southerners, a Black lawman challenges their views of where Black men are situated relative to White people in the socially constructed racial hierarchy. Conversely, Black people view Reeves as misguided, a traitor even, for arresting “his own,” particularly when the crimes were justifiable. One Black man, for example, whom Reeves arrests for killing a former enslaver, insists the man deserved it. The man explains that the enslaver vowed to kill his people before he set them free. So, when he received the news that enslaved persons had been emancipated, he locked them in their cabins and burned them all alive. For this, Reeves’s captive asserts he has “no regrets” for killing the man and insists he would “do it again.” While clearly moved by the story, Reeves’ view is that the question of his captive’s innocence or guilt is not one for him to decide but rather one for the court. He refers to Bible verses alluding to God as the Judge and the one that his detainees must ultimately answer to. Like a focused automaton, his job, in his view, is to capture and bring them in so they can have their day in court.

Reeves is guided by a set of principles that dictates how he goes about his work. But he expects, perhaps naïvely, that other lawmen operate according to a similar moral code. We see this when his assistant, Billy Crow, played by Forrest Goodluck (The Revenant, The Miseducation of Cameron Crowe), is distracted during a mission and ends up shooting a fleeing suspect who regrettably dies. Reeves’s facial expression conveys his annoyance with his young assistant, who later asks him if he is going to fire him. Reeves removes a bullet from his gun, pulls his horse up next to Billy’s, and tosses the bullet to him. Perplexed, Billy asks, “A bullet?” Reeves simply responds, “Each one a man’s life.” This happens more than once during the series where Reeves becomes dismayed at the irresponsible decisions, even of an overzealous peer. 

Because Reeves is fluent in the Choctaw language and familiar with Indigenous territories in the South, Marshal Sherrill Lynn, played by Dennis Quaid, asks for his help in finding a Choctaw man wanted for arrest. When Marshal Lynn disrespects a Choctaw woman in her home and later sets fire to the suspect’s home, burning him alive, Reeves is disgusted with his behavior. He forcefully confronts Lynn and reiterates that the goal of their job is to bring in suspects and allow them their day in court. Married with four children, Reeves asserts that he would rather continue to till the unyielding land on his farm and risk his family going hungry than work with such a man. He then promptly mounts his horse and rides off.

Lauren E. Banks plays Reeves’ wife, Jennie, who holds down the fort at home guided by principles similar to those of her husband. It is unusual for women to be represented as strong back in the day. But the series depicts this in Jennie Reeves who at one point tells an imposing pastor and dinner guest that he is preaching his questionable wares to the wrong house. White women as well are often depicted as feminine and fragile, but we see them differently in the series as when Bass Reeves informs a blind woman that her husband is dead. Showing no surprise, she responds, “I take it you found him in some woman’s bed” – brutal forthrightness that leaves Reeves speechless. We also see female depictions deviate from their typical representations when a sex worker reading a book during her break explains to Billy Crow facts about the world she has read about and seen firsthand. This scene challenges his assumptions that her identity is solely that of a sex worker and her entire adult life has been spent in a brothel.

Chad Feehan’s production reminds me a lot of the strong themes and meticulously crafted characters in Taylor Sheridan’s works, who coincidentallly is an executive producer on the series. Sheridan's Yellowstone is a contemporary Western-style drama series with seemingly bigger than life characters like John Dutton and Rip Wheeler, respectively played by Kevin Costner and Cole Hauser. Like Deputy Marshal Reeves, John Dutton has a North Star, a set of principles that guide him. In Dutton’s case, it is to keep his 750,000 acres and destroy everything and anyone who attempts to infringe upon it. Bass’s principles, on the other hand, can best be described as moral or spiritual in nature. 

Collins Dictionary defines respect in several ways, but they all culminate into this: courteous consideration and regard for someone’s wishes, rights, or customs, and the deference or dutiful regard for law and moral principles. Understanding this, people who give respect are not necessarily looking for it in return, but this is nonetheless a by-product of treating others respectfully. In the 1982 movie, 48 Hours, Eddie Murphy’s 20-year-old character jokes that a Black man with a badge is a person White people fear most. But Reeves isn’t at all interested in being feared by anyone. He is, however, invested in respect. Indeed, there is a difference, a big difference between the two.

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