David Oyelowo Examines America’s Untold History With ‘Lawmen: Bass Reeves’


Photo by Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic

When David Oyelowo first learned about the story of Bass Reeves in 2014, he was astonished that he hadn’t heard of him previously. As the first African-American deputy U.S. Marshal west of the Mississippi River, Reeves became one of the most important figures in this country’s history. Due to the officer’s fascinating life and career, Oyelowo made a nearly decade-long effort to put this harrowing story on screen; which eventually became the breakout limited series, Lawmen: Bass Reeves.

“Virtually no one else around me knew about him, and I’d certainly never seen him portrayed, as I say in movies or TV in this beloved genre that is the Western, a genre that you could argue borderline defines American cinema,” Oyelowo explains. “One of the first moving images captured on film was a Black man on a horse. So why in the 150 years since these events happened have we not focused on this man in the way we should?”

“So that, to be honest, was the driving force and the driving thing on my mind in relation to trying to get the story told,” he continued.

Throughout its eight episodes, viewers will see not only Reeves as an exemplary marksman and detective, but also the person behind the badge, and the struggle with balancing his work and his family life. For this powerful performance in Lawmen’s titular role, Oyelowo earned his third Golden Globes nomination, and the satisfaction that the legacy of this former-slave-turned-Marshal will live on.

In the aftermath of the finale last month, Oyelowo spoke with ESSENCE about the long process of getting Reeves’ story to a global audience, expectations when playing a historical figure, how the first season of Lawmen was received, and more.

ESSENCE: You found out about Bass Reeves in 2014, and I also heard that it took almost 10 years for this story to get greenlit. Why did it take so long for this harrowing story to touch the screen?

David Oyelowo: Simply put, it’s what we know as racism. Racism by definition is treating someone or a people differently on the basis of their race. If Bass Reeves were white, there is no question in my mind that we would’ve seen not only movies and TV shows, but we would have kids dressed up like him at Halloween. He would be very entrenched in the cultural consciousness like Billy the Kid and Wyatt Earp and what are deemed to be American heroes of the West. So that very clearly is the case, but for me personally, I have found that certainly some of the projects that I have been blessed enough to help bring to fruition—Selma being another example—you’ve got to hold people’s feet to the fire and really have them face up to why they may be resisting a story.

And then if you get the opportunity, the execution has to be such that unfairly on your mind is the fact that, “okay, I’ve now got to do this to a level whereby hopefully going forward we’re not still having these debates over whether these stories should be being told or not.” So you have the pressure of, “I’m not only trying to get this thing made, but I’ve got to try and get it made right.” What you sometimes see is under budgeted, low production value elements, or I should say examples of these stories, which then unfortunately affirms why the stories shouldn’t be told. So you have that double pressure. If I’m going to do it, I have to do it excellently, and in order to get to the point where I can do it, I’ve got to really put pressure on people who may be resistant to it and help them get that.

I’m glad you brought up Selma, because I think that this is something that you do better than most. When you’re playing these historical figures like Dr. King, and of course, Bass Reeves. Bass Reeves, specifically though someone without video footage and heavy documentation, what was your preparation process like when you were preparing for this role in order to give an accurate depiction?

That’s a good question. Look, my job as an actor, whether I’m playing a nonfiction or a fictional character, a historical or real person, is I’ve got to do whatever I can to try and get to the truth of that person. And you use all the tools at your disposal. In the case of Bass Reeves, like I say, this is the 1860s, 1870s, so this is 150 years ago. There isn’t a film. And traditionally and historically, Black people and their exploits were not as documented also for racist reasons. There is a reason why our history as Black people tends to be not only less documented, but expunged from the consciousness in terms of education. It’s because there’s power and the power is held by the storyteller, whether it’s the historian or the movie maker. And so that is also why it had taken so long for this story to be told. That is why Bass Reeves, who should be in the history books and being taught in schools, isn’t there.

And so thankfully, Art T. Burton had written a really rich book in terms of information about Bass Reeves in a book called Black Gun, Silver Star. And in that book you have court accounts where Bass Reeves is giving testimony. And so that’s the best place. You could go to kind of get a sense of his cadence, a sense of the man, but it’s in a more formal setting, which was very similar to Dr. King. Even though we have a lot of footage of Dr. King, he’s often giving interviews about civil rights or politics or he’s giving speeches. So it’s the more formal side of both men you’re getting in terms of what’s there by way of documentation. So the challenge, but also the gift is you’ve now got to go and find who that man may have been when the cameras weren’t on or when they weren’t giving testimony in a courthouse. And that’s where you have license as the screenwriters, but also as the actor as well, to try and go and build a three-dimensional human being.

Congratulations on your third Golden Globe nomination. 

Thank you.

With you being so involved with the production of Lawmen: Bass Reeves, is this nomination more gratifying than the previous two at all?

They’re all great to have, not least because all of them are on projects I have produced. Nightingale, Selma and now Bass Reeves, and what that does for me personally is it really illustrates that as a storyteller, but also as a Black man, like Bass Reeves did to a certain extent. You get the most out of yourself when you are in the driving seat of who you are, what you want to do and how you want to do it. Of course, you need collaborators, you need help, you need mentorship, you need wisdom, you need advice from others. But the most rewarding work I have done has been driven by a passion to see represented on screen the things that I value. And so where Bass Reeves is really special, I would say, is that of the three projects I’ve been nominated for in terms of the Golden Globes, this is the one that had the proper budget. This is the one that has been blessed by Paramount with the proper marketing and the proper support.

With the others, you are struggling a little bit. You have to almost prove that you are worthy of being in front of people’s eyeballs. Whereas with this, partly because Taylor Sheridan has done this extraordinary thing of building an audience, reinvigorating a genre, and giving a platform that meant that it was harder to say no to Bass Reeves because you watch Yellowstone or even more, a better example would be 1883, you can see that there is an audience, there is a way of doing these things, there’s a scope and scale that these stories should and could be afforded. And so not even just the nomination, the engagement from the audience, Black, white, and everyone in between, that’s been a really gratifying thing because the thing that I was told for these eight years of trying to get this thing made was it’s not global, basically. It’s Black, it’s historical, it’s expensive. How do we make this make sense? And the way it doesn’t make sense is because not enough people are going to watch it.

But when the show ends up being the most watched show globally on Paramount this year, that completely debunks that narrative. And I am not a believer in the fact that that fact means that now everything has changed. We’ve seen that that’s not the case. We are going to have to time and again, unfortunately prove and reprove this. But it’s always nice when you disprove a narrative that is targeted against Black people and it’s used to marginalize who we are and what we can do.

I wanted to hone back in on your portrayal of Bass Reeves. For you, was there an expectation? Or what was the biggest challenge that you faced in playing Bass Reeves?

In the actual playing as opposed to in the getting it made, it’s incredibly physically demanding. I did over a year of horse riding and training before we started shooting. When you are shooting for five to six months in really harsh weather with a very big crew and you are on set every single day, not only as an actor, but as a producer, you’ve got to do a lot of work on your body to make sure you stay healthy and physically fit to do it. So the physical component was an element that I hadn’t had to do to quite the same degree before. So that was incredibly challenging, I would say. And then the other thing is knowing when to put the producer hat aside and just focus as an actor, but knowing when you had to put the producer hat on because with a production this big, there are constantly issues that need to be addressed. And sometimes depending on the nature of those issues, you can’t afford to purely delegate them to other people. You’ve got to be present for that stuff as well.

With Season One of Lawmen: Bass Reeves now in the books, how do you feel about its reception?

It has been amazing. I mean, it’s been extraordinary to see, especially middle-aged to older Black and white men, that has been ravenous. I think for Black men especially, there are values expressed in Bass Reeves that they really engage with and feel connected to. They’re also men who grew up loving Westerns. I haven’t seen Have Gun – Will Travel or Gunsmoke, but those keep coming up as people are saying, “Man, I loved that back in the day. Now I’m watching this with my kids and my grandkids.” And the fact that families are rallying around the show as well. And then my fifteen-year-old son coming home telling me that all his friends are watching Bass Reeves. I’m just like, whoa. To have that wide of an audience, young people, older people, Black people, white people, when I walk the street, 9 out of 10 people who recognize me will be Black. And that’s because of the nature of the work I do and whether or not they felt seen within that work.

But now it’s 50-50. This is the first time in my career that as many white people as Black people recognize me. And that’s because the show is connecting beyond racial lines. And so that has been incredibly gratifying. And if I’m totally honest, it’s a bit surprising because no matter how much you fight this system of oppression or systems of oppression, you start to internalize some of the narrative. You go, “Well, I guess maybe we are making this for a Black audience.” But no, it’s a global audience. That’s been proven in the numbers that have been watching it on Paramount. Certainly when I’m out in the world, I can feel it in a very real way.


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