Newton Free Library Co-Hosts Event Detailing History of Black Westerns

Mia Mask, the Mary Riepma Ross endowed chair of film at Vassar College, spoke about her book Black Rodeo, A History of the African American Western at an event at the Newton Free Library, organized by the Ashland Public Library Wednesday. 

“I feel like this is the book I really wanted to write for a long time,” Mask said. “This was a project that was near and dear to my heart because I’m a rider, I am a life-long lover of horses, so the equestrian culture I was involved in was just really fun for me.”

There is not a lot of literature about Black westerns made after 1955, Mask said. She intentionally chose the films she wanted to write about to fill the lack of material. 

“I was able to select actors that had made some imprint on the zeitgeist,” Mask said.

Mask showed a video she made on the history of Black westerns to provide context on her book. In one clip from the video titled “Turning Up the Political Volume,” Mask spoke about the evolution of former NFL player and actor Jim Brown’s roles to emphasize the shift in the portrayal of Black cowboys in westerns. 

“We see the films begin to turn up the volume on the political content, the ways in which the Black cowboy is demanding and openly expecting respect,” Mask said. 

The Black western genre has evolved from the 1950s to include elements of other genres, she said in her video. 

“You see over time, the way Black westerns begin to amalgamate, incorporate, a range of other genres to reward their loyal fans, the Western spectators, by bringing in some of the visual pleasures of other genres and just mixing it up, to create something that is recognizable as a western, but still pleasurable in other ways,” Mask said. 

Meena Jain, the director of Ashland Public Library, asked Mask if it was more accessible for Black actors to be a part of westerns compared to other film genres. 

“It was probably less accessible, because there has been the perception that African Americans had not been a part in the settling and shaping of the American West,” Mask said. “That is an issue historians have been a part of for some time.”

Mask named her book Black Rodeo after a documentary by independent filmmaker Jeff Kanew with the same name. The documentary covered a small African American traveling rodeo that traveled to Randall’s Island in Manhattan. 

“We see these performers have a relationship with their animals, with their livestock but also with their horses, that we haven’t really had an opportunity to see in popular culture,” Mask said. “A real caring relationship. So that has been nice to uncover as well.”

Mask explains that not all of the films she writes about represent Black culture well, with some films considered “Blaxploitation.”

“Even though in the past, people have said, you know those aren’t high brow artsy, expensively made films—they’re trash and low-brow, so I don’t want to look at them and talk about them,” Mask said. “Luckily, in film cinemas, we’ve come a long way so that lots of folks are now looking at exploitation cinemas, and understanding that they spoke to and speak to audiences in specific ways.”

Mask was very intentional about balancing the stories of both hardship and triumph Black actors experienced in this genre of film, she said. 

“There was definitely an effort to balance the challenges they are encountering with the industry, with society, and expectations of Black actors on one hand, and their sort of triumphant desire to push through, push the envelope in some ways,” she said.

Mask was always more interested in analyzing films than making them, she said.

“If I wanted to be making films, I would be making films,” Mask said. “I love film history, theory, criticism—I really wanted to be a film critic. But at the time, we found that there really wasn’t a lot published on African American cinema.”

Mask said she was interested in writing on Black comic book characters in the future. 

“I learned on this journey, Lobo was the first African American comic book character to have his own series,” Mask said. “He was a Western hero, and I would love to write more about Lobo, and write some articles and publications around this figure.”

April 2, 2023