Combustible Celluloid
 
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With: Mario Van Peebles, Stephen Baldwin, Billy Zane, Tone Loc, Melvin Van Peebles, Tom Lister, Jr., Big Daddy Kane, Reginald VelJohnson, Blair Underwood, Isaac Hayes, Charles Lane, Robert Hooks, Richard Jordan, Pam Grier, Nipsey Russell, Paul Bartel, Salli Richardson, Woody Strode, Aaron Neville, Reginald Hudlin, Warrington Hudlin, Richard Gant, Richard Edson, Stephen J. Cannell, Vesta Williams, Faizon Love
Written by: Sy Richardson, Dario Scardapane
Directed by: Mario Van Peebles
MPAA Rating: R for strong violence and sexuality, and for language
Running Time: 111
Date: 05/14/1993
IMDB

Posse (1993)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Homes on the Range

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Mario Van Peebles' Posse starts on some very fertile ground. According to the movie, there were thousands of black cowboys in the Old West whose stories have never been told. Indeed, it's possible to count the number of major black characters in American Westerns on one hand. This movie quotes one of them: Woody Strode in Once Upon a Time in the West (1969). Theoretically there could have been dozens of African-American Westerns in existence today, except that Posse didn't make enough of an impact to inspire any more. (Reviewers seemed more interested in making jokes and puns, like "Homes on the Range.")

Part of the problem seems to have been that Van Peebles had too much to say. He wanted to pass along the message of the black cowboys and their untold stories. He wanted to say something about racism and slavery. He wanted to make a movie worthy of his legendary filmmaker father Melvin Van Peebles, who appears here in a supporting role. He wanted to make a slam-bang action movie that would appeal to crowds. And he wanted to indulge his own sizeable ego, portraying his character as sexually desirable (with close-ups of his own oiled biceps) and immeasurably cool.

As a result, the movie seems too frenetic, too eager-to-please, too split at the seams. Van Peebles stars as Jesse Lee a Buffalo Soldier in the Spanish-American war. Thanks to the snaky, evil Colonel Graham (Billy Zane), Jesse loses his command and is sent on a doomed mission to steal some Spanish gold. When he does, he and his men will be branded as deserters and shot. The other members of his posse include Little J (Stephen Baldwin), Obobo ("Tiny" Lister), Weezie (Charles Lane), and Angel (Tone Loc). Along the way, Little J -- who has a taste for cards -- picks up gambler "Father Time" (Big Daddy Kane).

They head for Freemanville, an entire town built and run by African-Americans, but under the thumb of a corrupt sheriff (Richard Jordan). There, they have the final showdown, with a Gatling gun and lots of explosions. The inclusion of a white character -- Baldwin -- among the posse allows for some occasionally interesting racial discussions, but nothing terribly deep or life-changing. There's also a girl for Jesse, the gorgeous Lana (Salli Richardson). Some legendary character actors, such as Pam Grier, Isaac Hayes, and Woody Strode, turn up, though they have relatively little to do. Future director Catherine Hardwicke was the production designer.

On top of the many other items on his agenda, Van Peebles found himself in the middle of a wonderfully fertile period in Hollywood, when many African-American films were actually being financed and released. He probably felt a great deal of pressure to live up to films by Spike Lee and John Singleton, and so tries to make his Posse very stylish and kinetic. We get dreamy, black-and-white flashbacks, slow-motion, quick cutting, etc., though none of it feels inspired or organic. It just feels tossed in.

As a fan of both Westerns and African-American cinema, I was hoping for a masterpiece here. It's a shame not only that this wasn't better, but also that no other attempts seem to have been made in the 18 years since.

This summer, Fox Home Video has released a handful of movies from the MGM library, including this one, on Blu-Ray. The quality is fine, and the only extra is a trailer.

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