There’s Something Missing from 'Bass Reeves'

david oyelowo as bass reeves in lawmen bass reeves, episode 1, season 1, streaming on paramount, 2023 photo credit emerson millerparamount
There’s Something Missing from 'Bass Reeves'Emerson Miller - Paramount

There are countless devastating stories buried in America's short past. Atrocities such as the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre and the Osage Murders occurred just within a century's reach of the present day. Yet it has somehow fallen upon Hollywood to reteach these events to the public. Paramount+ and Yellowstone creator Taylor Sheridan's latest series, Lawmen: Bass Reeves, is another one of those long-forgotten stories. Unlike those horrific examples of man's greatest cruelties, Bass Reeves is the tale of a real-life superhero.

Picking near the end of the American Civil War, Lawmen: Bass Reeves tells the story of a runaway slave who became the first Black U.S. Deputy Marshal west of the Mississippi River. Settling in Arkansas, he worked for 32 years as a federal officer—and was even heralded as an excellent marksman. His legendary adventures reportedly served as partial inspiration for the The Lone Ranger.

Get this: During his time in law enforcement, Reeves made 3,000 arrests. 3,000! That's a man on a mission. But he couldn't have vengeful. He didn't kill his marks—he brought them in alive. The man is known for 3,000 arrests, not 3,000 kills. These are pillars of Reeves's life that we know are true, but we don't exactly understand his motivations, which is something I hoped the show would clear up. But in Lawmen: Bass Reeves's first two episodes, which premiere on Paramount+ today, I'm still left wondering just what possessed him to not only take the job—but to be so damn good at it.

For starters, Bass Reeves—which stars the great David Oyelowo in the title role—clearly wants to remind you exactly who Bass Reeves is. When this series was first announced as 1883: The Bass Reeves Story, a majority of audiences thought it was another Yellowstone prequel—and that Reeves was a fictional character. In the first two episodes, the series creators hope to rectify that. "If there was a cheat sheet on the story [of Bass Reeves], this is a great version," director Damian Marcano told Looper. "You can be a fan of cinema to love this show and be like, Wait, this guy was real? Yeah, he was—go look him up."

At the same, Bass Reeves creator Chad Feehan (Ray Donovan) didn't want audiences to feel like they were watching a Wikipedia page. Feehan told MovieWeb that Oyelowo taught him "the things that I didn't know" about the legendary lawman over a four-hour dinner. It compelled him to be "part of the legacy to honor Bass Reeves's life." Still, in the two premiere episodes, we're mostly delivered a whole bunch of setup and plot.

We meet Reeves when he's still enslaved by Texas Colonel George R. Reeves, who forces him to fight for the Confederacy in the Civil War. Soon after, Reeves beats the Colonel within an inch of his life and runs away. Once the war is over and slavery is abolished, Reeves settles with his wife in Arkansas and tries to become a farmer. In Lawmen's second episode, Reeves is asked to aid U.S. Deputy Marshal Sherill Lynn (Dennis Quaid) on a mission to Native American land due to his knowledge of the language. Respecting his mercy, intelligence, and commitment to justice, Judge Parker (Donald Sutherland) makes him a deputy.

Oyelowo's performance, if you had any doubt, is captivating. This is a project he has been chasing for over eight years—and you can tell that it's personal. As the actor told Esquire this past summer, it took Sheridan "rejuvenating the western" with Yellowstone to finally get Bass Reeves on television. So, Oyelowo made sure that the first major Hollywood depiction of the Black American legend was powerful. In Lawmen: Bass Reeves, the historical figure is a loving husband and father, a strong Christian, and a man with the earnest heart of Captain America. He doesn’t cuss or discriminate—and he certainly doesn’t fire first. He's as close to a superhero as a man can get.

And yes, it's fantastic to witness Reeves's greatness—and see Oyelowo's talent on full display. But the show's first two episodes have yet to answer exactly what it is about Reeves that made him more than an exemplary historical figure. I could watch Reeves traverse Sheridan's expansive western landscape and shoot down vicious outlaws all day. In one scene, Reeves plays a deliciously tense game of cards with his former master. It's one of the best scenes I've seen in a Sheridan-produced series yet. Dennis Quaid is fantastic as a wacky fellow Deputy U.S. Marshal, and Lauren E. Banks is excellent as Reeves's wife, Jennie. I just hope that the rest of Bass Reeves shows us more of the lawman's humanity—the "things that I didn't know," as creator Chad Feehan described. Throughout all the tragedy, horror, and ugliness of the Old West, something deep within Reeves led him to become every bit the legend he is. Let me see it.

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