The new Taylor Sheridan-produced, Paramount+ show Lawmen: Bass Reeves is based on the true story of one of the first Black deputy U.S. marshals west of the Mississippi River. He had a fascinating life, in which he was born into slavery, fought in the Civil War and eventually became a law enforcement officer — but his story is not well known.
Just ask actor David Oyelowo, who plays him and executive produces the series, which stands alone from Sheridan’s hit Yellowstone.
“I knew nothing about Bass Reeves until a producer named David Permut approached me with an early version of the project in 2014. I simply couldn’t believe that this was a historical character,” Oyelowo tells Yahoo Entertainment. “A, I hadn’t heard of him before. B, [The story] didn’t already have its own TV show or film. And C, that the entire world didn’t have it at their tip of their tongues when it came to the western genre. So very quickly I became obsessed with the idea of, in some way, being part of correcting that injustice.”
In addition to Paramount+, Bass Reeves premiered on CBS, where it drew an average audience of 3.34 million viewers to its first two episodes, compared to the 4.75 million who watched the episode of Yellowstone that preceded them. The story is one of several that have come out in the last few years about Black cowboys, including the 2020 movie Concrete Cowboy, which starred Idris Elba, and The Harder They Fall, the 2021 flick led by Jonathan Majors, Regina King and Elba.
Bass Reeves is partly based on the non-fiction books that author Sidney Thompson has written about the badge-wearing lawman; Thompson is a creative consultant.
‘It’s a real honor’
“I did love westerns growing up,” Oyelowo says. “Less so as I got older, and I became a bit more aware of the politics and the inappropriateness of cowboys and Indians, and the problematic portrayals of Native Americans in those films. So less so as I grew older. But what I didn’t realize is that 1 in 4 cowboys was Black back in the day, and just how much of a lie those westerns I was watching were that I didn’t know. And so yeah. It’s incredibly gratifying to come back to a genre I loved as a kid and hopefully correct some of those lies with the portrayal that we have now.”
Since the show premiered Nov. 5, series star Oyelowo shoulders much of the responsibility of opening other people’s eyes to Reeves’s story.
“It’s a real honor. I’ve told stories akin to this before, so I really understand their necessity, their potency,” says Oyelowo, who played the better known Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma and supporting roles in biopics like Nina and Lincoln. “What you can’t predict is if there will be an embrace for them. I can now attest to the fact that I see, and feel, and know that there is a massive embrace for this. And so that’s what you aim for. That’s what you hope for. And so it’s incredibly gratifying that that is what is beginning to happen.”
But Oyelowo is not alone, because Lawmen: Bass Reeves features both recognizable acting veterans such as Donald Sutherland, Barry Pepper and Dennis Quaid, and numerous young Black actors, many of whom count Bass Reeves as their biggest project to date.
Becoming Bass Reeves
For his own role in the series, Oyelowo prepared extensively, mostly physically, for 15 months.
“The riding, I rode for over a year in practice for this and lots of different terrain and had to learn tricks. I actually am doing that rearing of that horse [on the show poster], so that’s something I had to learn,” he says. “But because [Bass] was so proficient at that, I didn’t want that to be a moment where the audience was second guessing whether I am someone the likes of which could do the things Bass Reeves could do… He was a very strong man in order to be able to do what he did, and imposed the law in the way that he did. And so it was 15 months of gym work. It was over a year of horse riding. Yeah. It was very involved, but that’s the least I could do to pay homage to who he actually was.”
David Oyelowo demonstrates his horseback riding skills in the poster for Lawmen: Bass Reeves. (Paramount+) (Kwaku Alston/Paramount+)
There were also two native American languages to learn, which he speaks in the series, because Reeves lived with several tribes during his time in Indian territory. Not to mention that Oyelowo, who was born in Britain, had to take on the accent of Reeves, who hailed from Arkansas. It was daunting, partly because he’d never heard the languages before, so he worked with people from the tribes.
“It’s not like French. I’ve heard a bit of French. German, I’ve heard a bit of German. This is just so completely outside of my day-to-day,” Oyelowo says. “They’re sounds I just have never made with my mouth.”
‘One of the things that really affected me…’
What he couldn’t prepare for was how the intense role would haunt him when he was off-camera.
“One of the things that really affected me… the opening episode, that plantation house was on an actual plantation. And it’s a plantation where 80 enslaved people had been kept back in the day. And you feel the ghosts of that,” Oyelowo says. “It’s a very heavy thing to be around considering the nature of the scenes that we were playing, especially in that environment. And I will admit that was hard to shake, that was hard to be around, that was hard to reconcile.”
Lauren E. Banks plays the wife of David Oyelowo’s title character in Lawmen: Bass Reeves. (Emerson Miller/Paramount+) (Emerson Miller/Paramount+)
On working with his wife — again
He did have the chance to work with his wife, Jessica Oyelowo, who’s also an executive producer on the project. She plays the wife of a racist man.
“Well, it was certainly very strange in this. She’s playing a very, very problematic racist individual,” he says. “I’m not looking forward to the day our four kids are going to watch that. And it’s like, ‘Mommy, really?'”
Her character’s flaws aside, Oyelowo says he enjoys going to work with his wife of 25 years.
“To have the opportunity to work with each other, an excuse to be around each other in ways that we otherwise might not and to get to be on-screen with each other, it’s like a dream come true,” he notes. “She’s an extraordinary actress, and I met her when we were teenagers in a play together. So the fact that we keep finding these ways to work together is great.”
Jessica and David Oyelowo attend the Academy Awards on March 27, 2022, in Hollywood, Calif. (David Livingston/Getty Images) (Getty Images)
What’s unclear is whether this job will continue. Lawmen: Bass Reeves is billed as an eight-part limited gig, part of an anthology series, but Oyelowo hints that there’s a chance we could see him riding a galloping horse or dodging a bullet in another season.
“We deliberately wanted to make sure we made enough that it feels satisfying, but we’re not out-staying our welcome so to speak,” he says. “It’s an expensive show. So in some ways, Paramount took a big swing, and if it’s starting to pay off, that’s huge because, as a producer, that’s something you always want. You want to give your investors a return on their investments. But yeah. If that noise keeps going, you never know. There’s certainly plenty of story to mine.”
As he knows now, Reeves was a deputy for decades.
New episodes of Lawmen: Bass Reeves are available Sundays on Paramount+.
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