Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Joan of Arc and the Black Marshall of Oklahoma

Though it first aired on HBO late last year, I'm just now going through the series Watchmen.  I'm eight of nine episodes in and looking forward to the season finale.  After reading and hearing such positive things about it, I have not in the least been disappointed. It's exciting and trippy and it's thought-provoking in the best way.  And in how it explores, among other things, the history of racial strife in the United States, and ongoing racial conflict, and the determined intransigence of white supremacists, it is perfectly in sync with what is happening right now in this country.

Any series that opens with a depiction of the 1921 Greenwood Massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma has guts.  That event I knew of before watching the show, even though it's not something I learned of till well into my adult years.  I certainly never heard a whiff about the "Black Wall Street" or its destruction while in school.  The opening episode also presents us with old West black marshall Bass Reeves, and he is someone I did not know at all previously.  Since Watchmen mixes real history with alternate history, I thought Reeves might be a fictional character.  Now as it turns out, Reeves is of course an actual historical figure, the "Black Marshall of Oklahoma", the first black deputy US Marshal west of the Mississippi River, born into slavery in 1838 and who later worked for 32 years as a federal officer.  Basic Wikipedia research turns up startling facts: that when he retired in 1907, Reeves supposedly had made over 3,000 arrests, shot and killed 14 outlaws, and once had to arrest his own son for the murder of his son's wife.  I learned, too, that I had come across references to Reeves earlier; in season 3 episode 2 of Justified, two US Marshals bring Reeves up when discussing their favorite US Marshals of all time.  I didn't recognize his name at the time, and when watching Watchmen, failed to recall the reference.

You look up Reeves online, and the word "legendary" keeps popping up.  "Hero" does as well - "frontier hero".  It's not surprising to see these words, and they are standard ways to describe a person who lived such a noteworthy life. But these words, when you think about it, serve to describe nothing specific and tell you nothing you'd truly want to know about Reeves himself.  Reading those stock words somehow reminded me of a review I once read of French film director Jacques Rivette's film about Joan of Arc: Joan the Maid (Jeanne la pucelle), from 1994.  There have been numerous movies about Joan, not least being Carl Dreyer's great silent film The Passion of Joan of Arc, but the Rivette film, as the review I'm talking about pointed out (I don't remember who wrote the review), stands out in part because it explores and foregrounds a basic question about Joan that other depictions of her don't, at least not as much.  How exactly, on a basic day to day level if you will, did an illiterate, peasant teenage girl wind up leading the armies of France, let alone successfully?  If you tell this story in a "realistic" manner, its strangeness becomes even more pronounced.  Rivette's film is six hours long so he has the time to give layer after layer of detail, and he brings Joan to life in what you might call a down to earth way.  The approach is not to portray a "legend", but a fully dimensional flesh and blood person who accomplished exceptional things. That's an approach to historical depiction that I prefer and find most illuminating, and I'd love to see a film or series about Bass Reeves that does it this way.  

Joan of Arc and Bass Reeves. On the surface, they have nothing in common.  They are entirely different personalities.  But when I read about Reeves, the "facts" of his life -- born a slave, man who escaped his slaveowner and lived for years among the Cherokee, Creeks, and Seminoles, who then worked for over three decades in the "Indian Territories" as a deputy US Marshall, who was actually appointed to that post by James Fagan, a former Confederate General who President Ulysses S. Grant made US Marshall in 1875 -- I find myself eager to know in as unglamorous and anti-heroic a way as possible what this person's life was like.  The story needs no embellishment because it's unusual as is.  How did an illiterate peasant girl wind up leading the armies of France? Good question.  And what kind of people skills and personality did Bass Reeves have that he could thrive and have the respect of his peers (white as well as black) in such a way back in the post Civil War US?  Did he laugh frequently?  What kind of temper did he have? How did he deal with insults?  Racial insults.  Depending on the type of white person he was dealing with, how did he conduct himself?  Did he disarm sometimes through the use of jokes or was he a stern and forbidding lawman?  Did he, as we now call it, code switch when he got away from white people and was hanging out with black friends or acquaintances?  What was he like when dealing with Native Americans, which he must have, often.

I don't want to know about Bass Reeves the legend or hero but about Bass Reeves the human doing his job and living his life.  In a series or film or any sort of depiction, that would be fascinating enough for me.


Gary Phillips said...


I can't quite recall how I learned about Bass Reeves, but I think it was about ten years ago. Morgan Freeman had optioned two non-fiction books about him for HBO but that project seems dead. Though I know it's being developed for cable elsewhere. I've written a long short story with him and Nat Love aka Deadwood Dick for one of Airship 27's anthologies of stories about him - up to 4 editions I think Denzel channeled Reeves in the Magnificent Seven remake and Reeves shows up in a steampunk novel as well as an episode of Timeless. There's also Hell on the Border a recent film but that's not supposed to be very good. Can you tell I'm into Bass Reeves?

scott adlerberg said...

Ha. Just a little.