Perhaps the greatest lawman in American history was a Black Texan named Bass Reeves. After escaping slavery during the Civil War, Reeves served as a deputy U.S. marshal from 1875 to 1907, operating primarily in what was then the Indian Territory, a pitiless swath of land (today known as Oklahoma) that, in part, was a haven for some of the most dangerous criminals of the day. It was, as historian and Reeves biographer Art T. Burton has said, “the Valley of Death,” and a Black man in the postbellum South walked through it for more than three decades and came out alive. The legend of Reeves is built upon tales of near-flawless marksmanship with both revolver and rifle, his use of clever ruses and disguises to apprehend outlaws, and feats of near-superhuman strength.
Given such an epic life story, you’d be forgiven for thinking, as many mistakenly have, that Reeves must’ve been the inspiration for the Lone Ranger, the fictional, mask-wearing—and white—ex–Texas Ranger who brings bad guys to justice with sharpshooting and derring-do. While that’s not the case, Reeves is a subject seemingly tailor-made for filmmaking, and in recent years, he has finally started showing up on our screens. More than a century after his death, in 1910 from kidney disease, he was depicted briefly in the 2019 HBO miniseries Watchmen, then more fully in Netflix’s 2021 movie The Harder They Fall, in which he was portrayed with intimidating swagger by Delroy Lindo. And now, at last, comes Lawmen: Bass Reeves, a Paramount+ miniseries starring David Oyelowo as Reeves and executive produced by Oyelowo and Weatherford’s Taylor Sheridan, the creator of the juggernaut Yellowstone franchise.
The show, which premiered November 5 and runs for eight episodes, is for the most part an absorbing watch, with often excellent cinematography and fine acting by Oyelowo, even if his Reeves doesn’t change all that much through the episodes. When we meet Reeves, he’s an enslaved person who displays an uncommon sense of duty and courage in the Civil War, despite fighting for the Confederacy, which he hopes will lose, all while retaining devotion to Jennie, his future wife (Lauren E. Banks), and a steadfast sense of justice and fairness, which leads him to beat the snot out of his master. Then Reeves becomes a U.S. marshal who displays an uncommon sense of duty and courage while fighting criminals, all while retaining devotion to his wife and family and a steadfast sense of justice and fairness, which at times leads him to act rashly, such as when he punches out a fellow lawman (Texas’s own Dennis Quaid) after the man savagely kills a suspect before Reeves can finish negotiating his surrender.
Reeves’s mostly stoic constancy no matter the situation before him—and his silver-colored horse—are unmistakably Lone Ranger–esque, and the show appears to be leaning further into the masked crusader comparison with the introduction of Billy Crow (Forrest Goodluck), who seems destined to be the Tonto to Reeves’s Kemo Sabe. That isn’t to say Crow is a flat caricature of a Native American: Goodluck has the makings of a scene-stealer with his winsome boyishness and refreshing sense of humor, and it seems likely that Crow, unlike the original Tonto, will be given a detailed backstory. And to be fair to the showrunners, Crow is not necessarily an attempt to reclaim a troublesome Hollywood invention: the historical Bass Reeves, who spoke multiple Native languages, was known to work with a Native American posseman when operating in the Indian Territory, as was common practice among U.S. marshals at the time.
A Black Lone Ranger can be fun, and the scenes of adventure in the wilderness—many of which were shot in spectacularly beautiful locations in North Texas, including at Sheridan’s Bosque Ranch, outside Weatherford—and of tense poker hands and deadly shoot-outs are especially so. But it wouldn’t be a Sheridan production without a soapy streak, and the suds appear during domestic scenes featuring Reeves’s wife, Jennie, and his mildly rebellious teenage daughter, Sally (Demi Singleton). While Bass is wrangling outlaws far from home, Jennie is raising their growing brood (the historical Mr. and Mrs. Reeves had eleven children) all while keeping at arm’s length a smooth-talking political activist (Grantham Coleman) who has as yet vague notions of establishing a Black “Eden” in the Indian Territory. Sally, meanwhile, is secretly fanning the flames of a young romance with a local boy (Lonnie Chavis).
It’s not yet clear how, or when, these storylines will intersect, or if the show will sufficiently pass the Bechdel test in its remaining episodes. What is hardly in doubt is that the combination of blood and suds is part of how Sheridan has become the most successful showrunner working today. That formula is hardly cutting-edge, especially when it comes to making legends out of actual Old West figures, at least some of whom were probably undeserving of the remembrance. Combining violence with sentimentality is how, for example, Wyatt Earp, who was a pimp and a con man, was turned into a beacon of law-abiding righteousness portrayed by not one but two sex symbols in as many years.
In a near inversion of the iconic last line of one of the greatest westerns ever, Bass Reeves was a man whose facts—despite the frustratingly paltry extent to which they were recorded—exceed in grandeur those of whom we’ve made into legends. It’s long past due for Reeves to be made into one, too, and Lawmen, even though it relies on worn archetypes, is a step in the right direction. Reeves doesn’t deserve for it to be the last one.