Juneteenth: After June 19, 1865
“Us is free! But where can us go?”
Today’s nationwide Juneteenth celebrations stir memories of the movie Buck and the Preacher, a film in the Western genre, which was Sidney Poitier’s directorial debut. It opened 50 years ago, on April 28, 1972, during the early days of the popular Blaxploitation era. At the time, the general consensus held that it would get lost among the more popular releases but that proved not to be the case. Buck and the Preacher held its own against such big box office hits as Super Fly, Blacula, Trouble Man, and Across 110th Street. Recalling my role working in Scrumpy Dump Cinema, my brother, Winston Willis ’neighborhood movie theater on 105th and Euclid in Cleveland, I completely underestimated the massive crowds that would line up to take in this movie. A Western, no less.
Sidney Poitier plays Buck, a knowledgeable and experienced wagon master leading a caravan of hopeful newly freed slaves to the Old West. His familiarity with the surrounding lands and environs enables his respectful relationship with the American Indians in the area. As was common after the Emancipation, vicious White night-riders were frequently hired by slave owners to raid and destroy the wagon trains and terrorize the travelers. These marauding men were in dogged pursuit of the group, with the intention of returning them to their masters and plantations or killing them if they resisted.
Along his travels, Buck meets and forms an uncomfortable alliance with an opportunistic Preacher/con man, played by Harry Belafonte, and they devise a master plan to protect the freed slaves and continue on their journey. Sometime later, still on the run and approaching Indian territory, the caravan is provided food and safe passage by the chief and his people and the night-riders are forced to abandon their attempts to capture them.
Having not only watched or listened to this movie a tremendous number of times while working in the theater, as well as many other times in subsequent years, my personal appreciation for the Buck and the Preacher storyline, and one specific scene, runs much deeper, and I’ve never forgotten it.
In this powerful scene, actress Ruby Dee, as Buck’s wife Ruth, and in what I think is truly one of the most powerful and impactful performances of her entire career, expresses a long-suffering enslaved woman’s desire to live with her husband in freedom. “Far away from here! Somewhere!”. Her pain is palpable as she reveals her lived experience under the inhumanity of slavery. So much of the scene is raw and visceral and painfully relatable. Her movement. Her facial expressions. Her method of ironing and responsibly going about her household chores is reminiscent of the images I still hold from my Alabama childhood. Images of my mother and grandmothers and aunts and neighbor women. Southern women embracing the same chores. Ruth’s way of speaking, so very familiar and so painfully relatable. Her longing to be allowed to live “…like natural people” and to love her man and have his children. But refusing to bring children into the world only to be born into slavery. She is desperately clinging to her dream of going north to Canada because: “These White folks ain’t gon give us nothing. Not no 40 acres and not no mule. And not freedom neither.” Then, describing slavery, she repeats: “It’s like a poison soaked into the ground.”, as Buck’s and Preacher’s helpless reaction to her pain becomes visibly and equally unbearable.
YouTube Video: Ruby Dee’s amazingly heart-wrenching scene: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=77Hr8cbdEXw&list=PLD6DCF745AFBA3F49&index=7
Part 7 at: 1:20/9:50