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'Lawmen: Bass Reeves' Is Based on a Real-Life American Hero

david oyelowo as bass reeves in lawmen bass reeves, episode 2, season 1, streaming on paramount, 2023 photo credit lauren smithparamount
'Bass Reeves' Is Based on a Real-Life HeroLauren Smith - Paramount

This story contains spoilers for Lawmen: Bass Reeves.

It's difficult to do justice to the story of Bass Reeves—even in a big-budget television series. But that didn't stop Paramount from giving it a shot with Lawmen: Bass Reeves. The new Taylor Sheridan-produced limited series—starring David Oyelowo, Dennis Quaid, and Donald Sutherland—follows the life of a real-life lawman from the late 1800s. Reeves was the first Black U.S. Deputy Marshal west of the Mississippi River. He also served as partial inspiration for the Lone Ranger, but now, he finally has a series to call his own.

Oyelowo worked for eight years behind the scenes to tell Reeves's story, as the actor told Esquire this past summer. The series was initially promoted as a Yellowstone spinoff titled 1883: The Bass Reeves Story, before it was turned into its own limited series—separate from the fictional Yellowstone universe. Even though Sheridan remained attached as an executive producer, Oyelowo had the opportunity to dive into Reeves's life without Dutton intervention. "I have Taylor [Sheridan] to thank for rejuvenating the Western," Oyelowo said. "It's understandable that people would think that because the Yellowstone universe continues to be built out—but this is a separate story." But even as audiences watch the lawman's dramatized heroics on Bass Reeves, they may still be shocked to learn that it's mostly based on true events.

Born into slavery back in 1838, Reeves and his family were owned by Arkansas state legislator William Reeves. The house eventually passed down to his son, Colonel George Reeves, a former Texas sheriff. George Reeves forced Bass to join him in the fight against Confederacy during the American Civil War—but the colonel resigned from his commission sometime before the end of the war, due to disagreements with his commanding officers. Bass Reeves later escaped, with varying accounts of exactly how he fled.

Most of Reeves's known history comes from the book Black Gun, Silver Star: The Life and Legend of Frontier Marshal Bass Reeves by Art T. Burton, a former Loyola University professor of African American Studies. Though one account details a card game that turned violent—which is a moment dramatized by Lawmen: Bass Reeves—Reeves flees and hides out in Indian Territory until he was freed by the Thirteenth Amendment's abolition of slavery. For about decade, Reeves returned to Arkansas and attempted to work as a farmer, with his family beside him, until the marshal's service recruited him. These events take up most of the two-episode premiere of Paramount's Lawmen adaptation.

Reeves was reportedly valued for his knowledge of languages in the Indian Territory, including Cherokee, Creek, and Seminole. After Isaac "Hanging Judge" Parker recruited him, he ended up working as a U.S. Deputy Marshal for over 32 years. He was the region's most valuable deputy, famous for reportedly arresting 3,000 outlaws over the course of his career. The Paramount series shows Reeves tackling the likes of Silas Cobb, Billy Crow, and Jim Webb in the first half of the season—though they seem to be outlaws created solely for the series. Even so, Reeves has been shown many horrors of the West so far, including a devilish prisoner who brutally murders another captured outlaw. According to Burton's book, Reeves also had to arrest his own son, Benjamin "Bennie" Reeves, for the murder of his wife. He died from kidney disease at 71 years old. He was married to Nellie Jennie until her death in 1896, and they had 11 children together.

david oyelowo as bass reeves in lawmen bass reeves, episode 2, season 1, streaming on paramount, 2023 photo credit emerson millerparamount
Davis Oyelowo tried for eight years to get Bass Reeves’s story told.Emerson Miller - Paramount

Bass Reeves has appeared in film and TV before, notably portrayed by Delroy Lindo in The Harder They Fall and Colman Domingo in Timeless. He also served as the primary inspiration for Will Reeves in HBO's latest Watchmen adaptation. Paul L. Brady, the first-ever Black federal judge in the United States, was reportedly a direct descendant of Reeves.

With such a celebrated legacy, it was important that the Lawmen: Bass Reeves crew tell the famous lawman's story in full for the first time on screen. "What I was taken by was the shared responsibility of telling this story to the best of our abilities," creator Chad Feehan told Entertainment Weekly. "We would laugh and joke at times around the set, but my observation of the predominant feeling was, 'This is important. This is difficult. We need to get it right.'" The series airs on Sundays on Paramount+, exploring the full legacy of one of America's forgotten heroes.

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