The Magnificent Seven remake, directed by Antonie Fuqua, premiered last week at the Toronto Film Festival to mixed reviews. One thing that was unanimously praised however, was the diversity of the Seven, made up of a black leader, a comanche Indian, a Mexican outlaw, a Chinese assassin, as well as three white cowboys. Check out the trailer below:
Fuqua himself has said he wasn't trying to make any kind of statement with the diverse casting, merely looking to reflect the historical reality:
"The Mexicans were coming from another region and you had people from Europe and the blacks were obviously here and the Asians were working on the railroad tracks, so it was more diverse than what we see in westerns."
With regards to Denzel Washington in the lead role he stated:
"I just wanted to see Denzel Washington on a horse. I didn't think about color."
Nevertheless, regardless of his intention or not, The Magnificent Seven seems to be providing a much needed corrective to representation in Hollywood, not just in The Western. Yet the question remains:
How Ethnically Diverse Was The West?
The common archetype we have come to associate with the cowboy is a white male, and this is due to the all-pervasiveness of white leads in Hollywood westerns. The Lone Ranger, the Man With No Name, whoever John Wayne is playing; these are all white characters. This was more of a reflection with who held power in Hollywood rather than the historical reality of the Cowboy era. In fact, around one-third (yes, one-third) of all Cowboys were either black, Native American or hispanic.
Records suggest that black cowboys made up 15% of all cowboys, whilst hispanic cowboys made up another 15%. Naturally, due to having their own tribes and their own way of life, Native Americans were much less likely to be cowboys. Interestingly enough, The Lone Ranger is believed to be inspired by the story of a black cowboy, named Bass Reeves, who had his own Indian sidekick, who went throughout his whole career unscathed. Additionally, The Searchers, according to the BBC:
"was partly inspired by the exploits of Britt Johnson, a black cowboy whose wife and children were captured by the Comanches in 1865."
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Whilst no one can deny John Wayne's incredible performance in The Searchers and others from that era, it remains shocking to see the extent of white erasure that existed in Hollywood at the time, with black stories not only being ignored but exploited for white gain. This is doubly ironic as African-Americans usually became cowboys in order to escape racial exploitation.
A Free Life on The Open Road
Facing intense prejudice in both the South and the East, African-Americans saw a certain freedom in the frontier. Whilst the work was hard and rough, it allowed them to make their own opportunities as opposed to living under the rule of the white man. Although not highly common, the chances of social mobility, and owning your own business (in this case a ranch) was much better than in the even supposedly liberal East coast. As historian Mike Searles says:
"As a cowboy you had to have a degree of independence. You could not have an overseer, they had to go on horseback and they may be gone for days."
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Due to the camaraderie that occurred as a result of driving cattle, black and white cowboys shared a certain equality on the road, leaving black cowboys to live a life freer from prejudice. Despite still not being able to eat in white restaurants, sleep in white hotels and have sex with white prostitutes, when they were on the Plains they could enjoy a life with minimized discrimination. As John Ferguson, director of documentary The Forgotten Cowboys says:
"There are times when you really need the assistance of another cowboy. That was not the place to be too prejudiced or too hostile to the cowboy riding next to you."
Nevertheless, regardless of ethnicity, the vast majority of cowboys were considered to be from poorer backgrounds. A cowboy would only make around a dollar a day, had harsh sleeping conditions, and lived a mostly nomadic, unstable life. But where exactly did "cowboy" come from? The answer may surprise you:
The Mexicans Invented The Cowboy
There were no horses living in North America immediately prior to the colonization of the land by Christopher Colombus. They had become extinct in that region around 14,000 years before, surviving mostly in the Eurasian Steppes. However, in 1519, with Colombus' second voyage to the Americas, they were reintroduced into what is now considered present-day Mexico. As Spanish traditions mixed with native ones, Mexican culture was born, and with it the term Vaquero — which translates as a herder of cattle.
As these men traveled north into parts of "New Spain" such as California and Texas — crucial mythological spaces of the American West — Hispanic and English cultures merged, thus forming the archetype of the cowboy we have come to understand today. Therefore we can see that what is considered to be traditionally American culture is firmly rooted in Spanish traditions, a fact that has been obscured by American expansionism, and their victory in the Mexican-American war, allowing them to take hitherto Mexican territories such as Texas and California and claim them as American. With these realities being brought up to the light of day, lets ask ourselves:
Is The Western Genre Based Upon A False Narrative?
When digging into the formation of the historical reality of the West versus the mythological reimagining as seen in Hollywood, it is possible to see a vast discrepancy between what it was actually like in comparison to how it has been represented. This makes sense however: As the dominant race in America, and therefore the ones in control of Hollywood, the Western provided a means for white people to provide a simpler narrative of the time, in which they could be seen as the good guys.
This is despite of the fact that control of the West came at an extremely bloody cost. 25,000 Mexicans died in the Mexican-American war, vast reductions were made to the population of Native Americans (also caused by Spanish settlers), and the railroads were built upon the thinly-veiled slave labour of the Chinese. When you throw in the fact that African-Americans became cowboys to escape their own holocaust created by slave labour, you see that the West — although at times containing chivalry and camaraderie — was in fact a dog-eat-dog place containing insufferable cruelty and violence. Given both the Hays Code and notions of propriety in filmmaking during Hollywood's Golden Era, to include fair diverse practices and represent the characters accurately would be to admit that severely racist attitudes and practices were widespread and prevalent.
These traditional notions, of course, came under scrutiny with the arrival of the revisionist Western, including such films as The Wild Bunch and The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, as well as the some of the more complex and deeply felt movies of John Ford. Arguably the best telling of the true horror of the West isn't a film at all, but Cormac McCarthy's deeply unsettling novel Blood Meridian, which shows Western expansionism in all its blood-curdling horror.
Yet diversity and representation still remains an issue to this day, as to acknowledge diversity in historical pieces would be to acknowledge the heinous practices of white men. Here's hoping that future Westerns look to both expand their ethnic pool of characters involved and use that diversity to provide a strong critique of what is essentially a white myth. The Magnificent Seven is definitely a step in the right direction by acknowledging the hispanic and black make-up of the West. Denzel Washington is perfectly cast to play the hero seeing as there were many black heroes in the West, of whom white film adaptations were based upon. By remaking a classic film, and replacing the all-white cast with a much more diverse set it can work as a well needed corrective to the inherent racial bias of Hollywood.
Are you excited to see The Magnificent Seven?