Criterion Prediction #231: Buck and the Preacher, by Alexander Miller
Title: Buck and the Preacher
Director: Sidney Poitier
Cast: Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee, Harry Belafonte, Danny Miller, Cameron Mitchell
Synopsis: In the Kansas Territory shortly after the end of the Civil War and the abolishment of slavery, devious labor agents and bounty hunters are dispatched to “collect” recently freed slaves in order to force them back onto farms and plantations. Former soldier Buck turned wagon master (Poitier) forms an unlikely alliance with a wandering preacher and con artist (Belafonte) while protecting a caravan of emancipated black people from a violent gang led by the sadistic Deshay (Mitchell).
Critique: Poitier expertly blends political allegory into the myth of the American West by tapping into our country’s disreputable history of racial treatment as a mirror to contemporary issues. And yet Buck and the Preacher is a full-blooded western, entirely self-aware, operating with reverberating confidence as Poitier sinks us into the myth of a genre with a glimmering tweak of sly revision. The newer, more unfamiliar elements of the film are thematic, there are stylistic flourishes, but they’re done in concert with the genre that we’re immersed. While Poitier doesn’t venture too far from the metrics of the western, but his solemn vision is both elegiac and charmingly folksy. Despite the declarative tone of the story, it’s racial concerns roll off with unemphatic ease, as if the narrative is more show than tell, giving us a notion that the historical connotations are self-evident. At some junctures, it feels as if Buck and The Preacher are two movies. One could detect the influence of “guardian/protector” westerns, a la Wagon Master, Cheyenne Autumn. While there’s this lackadaisical riff underneath, evoking the laid-back aura of something like Cheyenne Social Club, or Two Rode Together, or the slower interludes of Howard Hawks’ informal Rio Bravo trilogy. These concepts don’t bump, there’s contrast, plus it plays out thanks to the chemistry between Poitier and Belafonte, the latter kind of steals the show as Poitier is playing his stoic character with restraint. Despite the two leads turning in solid work, as well as the always sturdy Ruby Dee, the malevolent shaggy dog magnetism of Cameron Mitchell is underutilized. Poitier’s Buck character is indeed understated, and Belafonte’s Preacher is charmingly realized, but there’s a vacancy in the contrast department that could have been filled by a more dynamic heavy.
Sturdily crafted and handsomely mounted, Buck and the Preacher is an assured debut feature set to the bellowing droll of Benny Carter’s harmonica driven score.
Why It Belongs in the Collection: If we can all forget that Poitier directed Ghost Dad (sorry if I reminded you that he directed Ghost Dad), highlighting the directing career of the famed actor would be an ideal move by The Criterion Collection. Also, Buck and the Preacher is something of a forgotten movie (or lesser seen), an area where Criterion excels in their distribution model. Now that there’s a restored version of the film, alongside more directing efforts from Poitier streaming on the Criterion Channel, maybe there’s a renewed interest in his movies?