Acting Up

Bass Reeves and How the West Was Won with David Oyelowo

Episode 4

Actor and producer David Oyelowo joins Cortney to talk about his latest passion project, Lawmen: Bass Reeves. The project is a Western television miniseries based on the life of the first African American Deputy U.S. Marshal, Bass Reeves. David and Cortney talk about the hurdles of getting the project made, why Black Westerns are important narratives to tell, and the complexities of playing a Black member of law enforcement in the 19th Century. Cortney also does a dive into Beyonce’s latest album “Cowboy Carter,” and analyzes how the record may be particularly impactful during this year’s election cycle.

96th Annual Academy Awards, the Oscars, Black Hollywood, Black A-listers, Black style, Black fashion, red carpets, red carpet style, red carpet recap,
David Oyelowo attends the 96th Annual Academy Awards on March 10, 2024 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by JC Olivera/Getty Images)

Acting Up is all about Black Hollywood, who’s making noise, who’s making a difference, and how they’re moving the needle regarding representation. 

Cortney Wills has forged deep connections with creatives, actors, directors, producers, writers, executives, and the real decision-makers who shape how our community is represented onscreen, giving Acting Up access to the inner workings of Hollywood.

Full Transcript Below:

Announcer: You are now listening to TheGrio Black Podcast Network, Black culture amplified. 

Cortney Wills: Hello, and welcome to acting up the podcast that dives deep into the world of TV and film that highlights our people, our culture, and our stories. I’m your host, Courtney Wills, Entertainment Director at TheGrio. And today, we’re diving into how the West was won.

We’re sitting down with David Oyelowo to talk about his phenomenal series, Lawmen: Bass Reeves. 

Lawmen: Bass Reeves – Trailer: How do I get to do what you do? You loyal. You ain’t afraid of much. But the real power lie beneath the badge. You ready to ride?

I thought you’d never ask. 

Cortney Wills: The first season of this fantastic anthology series premiered in November. You And it just recently came out on DVD. So if you haven’t caught it now is the time, especially if you’ve been bitten by the Cowboy Carter bug, because thanks to Beyonce, I think that our relationship to this country’s history and pride in conquering the West. All of those cowboy stories that we’ve been widely left out of when it comes to TV and film is kind of front and center now. Over the past couple years, we’ve seen a few film projects that bring Black people into the fold when it comes to Westerns. Films like, uh, Concrete Cowboy in 2020 that came out on Netflix and starred Idris Elba.

Outlaw Johnny Black came out last year in 2023 and The Harder They Fall hit Netflix in 2021 with an all star cast that I think kind of opened our eyes to the possibility of what it would be like to be included in these stories. 

The Harder They Fall – Trailer: Where is he? Where is who? Your boss. My boss. Clearly, you don’t know me. 

Cortney Wills: But it’s not just fantasy.

The reality is, Black folks were part of conquering the West. And lawman Bass Reeves does a really excellent job in highlighting that, as does Beyonce’s latest project, Cowboy Carter. I think something that people underestimate sometimes is how valuable it is to see ourselves in all facets of American history.

And that You know, our history in this country isn’t only tied to the brutality of slavery. It’s also tied to some of the biggest victories that this country takes so much pride in. When it comes to the food, the fashion, the music, all of these things that came out of this time period, Black folks had a huge influence on and certainly have a shared experience.

Okay, here’s an example, like Jolene, right? This song. On Cowboy Carter that Beyonce does with an intro from the legendary Dolly Parton who originated that song. 

Dolly Parton: Hey, miss Honey B, it’s Dolly P. You know that hussy with the good hair you sang about, reminded me of someone I knew back when. 

Cortney Wills: It’s not just about Dolly Parton getting on there and co-signing.

Beyonce or Beyonce’s version of her song. It is Dolly Parton laying bare the reality that whether you are a blonde white woman living in the South in the seventies, or you are a black woman at the top of their game in 2024, if a woman is coming for your man. The pain is the same, and what that does is it instantly creates common ground.

It highlights a common experience that reminds us that at the end of the day, we are all human. We all bleed the same blood. We all have similar fears, similar dreams, and that goes a long way when conversations between two kinds of people have come to a dead stop. Finding common ground. Finding things that you can relate to each other on is the beginning of conversations starting again, conversations that are likely very necessary, particularly in an election year like we are in now.

Cowboy Carter and Lawman Bass Reeves also remind us that Black folks have been here. We have been here in every crevice of American history, whether we are written out or not. And there is something quite empowering about staking our claim to this part of our American history.

David was extremely passionate about this project for years. I mean, I think maybe a decade before it actually got off the ground and the story that it tells is so captivating. And I think it’s even more mind blowing because it’s true. I love the fact that Taylor Sheridan is at the helm of this project because he’s done such a beautiful job with Yellowstone and that’s an entirely other series that I was a little late to because I just missed it and when it got me it really got me and I remember wishing like God I wonder what it would be like if there were some Black folks in this show and now we get certainly a different iteration but a lot of Taylor Sheridan’s kind of genius Sprinkled all over this project, I think it makes it really palpable.

And I think we’ll make it palpable for those Yellowstone audiences to come over and take an interest in something that they maybe wouldn’t have before. I sat down with David to find out why he was so passionate about this project, what it took for him to pull off this bad ass U. S. Marshall. role, how he kind of grappled with the complexity of being a Black man at that time and being in a position to assert power over another marginalized people, being the Native Americans, and how it all came together.

Let’s hear what he had to say.

Hi, David. It’s nice to see you. 

David Oyelowo: Hi. Hi, Courtney. Nice to meet you. 

Cortney Wills: This story that we are immersed in on this incredible show is so layered and so mind blowing to me, especially because I really never knew about the life of this character. And now that I’ve watched several episodes of this show, I’m I’m shocked that I never knew the story.

Um, and I read how much of a journey this has been for you. An eight year long journey to this character, to this show, to this moment. So my first question is, what about this particular life? Um, you know, it was, was so important for you to, to bring to the screen. 

David Oyelowo: Well, I had exactly the same reaction to you, but this was in 2014 for me, where I, once I had been approached about the possibility of telling the story and I did a little bit of a dive, I just couldn’t understand why this wasn’t someone the likes of Wyatt Earp or Billy the Kid, or, you know, just these names that.

Trip off your time when you think of the West and Westerns. Um, and on top of that, this is someone who came out of enslavement into a degree of empowerment. That was extraordinary at a time and had a 32 year career doing this. Um, it it, It just didn’t make sense outside of the darker corners of why our industry, um, and I mean the entertainment industry, has not leaned into certain characters.

And so it became an absolute obsession for me. I just, there is no way another generation goes by without this character having their moment. Soon after that, I was confronted like a slap in the face with why, um, his story hadn’t been told yet. Um, we, we went out with it twice, once in 2015 and then 2017, and every single place we approached turned it down.

Didn’t see the merits of it that, for me, felt like an absolute no brainer. But, You know, this was me coming off of seven years of trying to get Selma made and that was Dr. King. So, you know, you’re going to go, Oh, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, but, uh, but I was. And, um, so we, we stuck with it. And then in the meantime, Taylor Sheridan came along and reinvigorated the Western in a way that, you know, that was one of the excuses for people in the past.

No one’s really doing Westerns anymore. It’s all like, you know. But, but that was no longer an excuse and, um, not only was it no longer an excuse, but Taylor and the folks at Paramount were doing them on a massive scale. I mean, you, you look at 1883 and that, that is a no expense spared situation, very much in the same kind of terrain as Bass Reeves was, was operating.

So, you know, I approached Taylor. Um, we had a pretty great conversation about it. He’s very, very knowledgeable about the West generally, but he actually knew a lot about Bass Reeves specifically as well. And to be honest, without his reputation, without his notoriety, without his audience, I don’t know that a, that a major studio is leaning in to a Bass Reeves narrative, the likes of which we’ve now made.

The truly gratifying thing is watching a, an audience beyond Taylor’s audience, a, a black audience, a global audience, a female audience, uh, really embracing the show, which is what I always had as a, as a gut feeling about this narrative. But to see that happening is just, uh, just off the charts. 

Cortney Wills: It’s astonishing, really.

And, and then, at the same time, it feels long overdue. But I think what you said about Taylor Sheridan and his, the background and the knowledge and the success of the other, um, shows. I mean, I never thought Yellowstone would be something that would pull me in or that I would be watching. You know, and the only kind of complaint is that I don’t see me or us.

In there and when you look at the history of our communities being represented in Western specifically, which is just so American, right? Like it’s so classically American being left out of that part of our history. And that story is, is. Not an accident, you know, and I think that through vehicles like this and through, um, you know, some other content that we’ve seen and that we will see, weaving ourselves into the entirety of American history is so crucial, especially at a time where so much of our history, you know, is being washed away or attempting to be washed away.

Um, you being someone who has portrayed so many prolific and I think heroic men. Um, you, you kind of have a knack for that, I think, and then I see you in this character and I forget all of the other ones, like you, this feels so ingrained in me when I’m watching and there’s a love story and there’s, you know, he’s honorable but it’s violent and I’m clenching and, It’s just, um, really a kind of rollercoaster of emotion when I’m watching this project.

And I wondered if you had a similar experience in creating. 

David Oyelowo: Oh man, it’s so good to hear you say that. Um, yes, it was a rollercoaster to make. Um, a lot of the things that I value are in the show. You know, I’m a very happily married man. I, um, value family and love and my children and having a moral compass.

And despite marginalization, not the likes of what Bass Reeves, endured, but still clawing for the better angels, the, the, the, the hope in humanity, there will be a better day for my children than there was for me. These are characteristics I felt when I dug deep into the Bass Reeves story. And I just wanted to see out in the world.

And so when you talk about it emanating from me in that way, it’s because I deeply admire Bass Reeves. I share those values. I’m not as brave as he was. Um, but you know, getting to shed a light. and embody who he was, was truly a privilege and, and, and, and something I relished every day. And I was surrounded by people from that place who knew that thing, the horse riding.

the environment, the terrain, the spirit of that place. I steeped myself in it and, and wanted it to be something that felt so innate. I rode horses almost every day for over a year. You know, I, I was in the gym every single day to have the stamina needed to be able to do a six month shoot and to have the strength that this man had to have had to do what he was doing.

Um, you know, the dialect, the dialect. What that might have been what that should have been working with the amazing Denise Woods on that It was we all just threw ourselves in feet first Because we knew the depth of the opportunity that has been afforded but to your point about these these these men Who have had the opportunity to play?

Every single one of them I’ve been a producer on and I’ve been part of bringing them to fruition because I feel like my calling is the contextualization of, of blackness for a global audience and, and the breadth of who we are beyond some of the stereotypical caricature, more prevalent representations we see of ourselves.

That’s just, I don’t know. Better or for worse, that’s what, that’s what I feel called to. And so, um, whenever I get the opportunity, it’s, it’s just all in all the time. 

Cortney Wills: Last question, because I know I have to let you go. I could talk to you too about this project forever, but, um, you know, I found it interesting kind of the, the complexity of this man who was enslaved and then who was also, you know, had to fight for the Confederacy, um, and turning into a law enforcement.

And just the complex way, even now in this country, we look at police, we look at black police, we look at, you know, the discriminant ways in which our communities are policed. I couldn’t help, but be a little bit apprehensive of what it would feel like to look at this us Marshall, which, you know, we know law enforcement in this country actually started with play catchers.

Like I thought I might be watching someone chasing down his own people. And I didn’t know if even if he was like a great lawman, I would feel genuinely like supportive of that or like this person was brainwashed, you do know what I mean, kind of working for the other side. And it’s just wild in the way that this was portrayed, the more we learn about this man and his character and his integrity, I now would absolutely categorize him as a hero.

But I wondered if that kind of. evolution of law enforcement, our place in it ever crossed your mind as you were starting to tell this story? 

David Oyelowo: Oh, it was so top of mind and selfishly as an actor. That’s, that’s what you’re looking for. You’re looking for a character steeped in contradictions. steeped in complexity, both moral and otherwise.

And that’s what’s fascinating about him. He, he was forced to fight on the side of the Confederacy. Um, and you could argue that He felt compelled to become a deputy U. S. Marshal, deployed yet again by another white man, and from a place of power. And what you see as the show continues to evolve is even he questioning that very thing.

Am I an instrument for good? Or am I a weapon for the power structure that is the same as I was subjugated by when I was enslaved? And as the show progresses, there’s real complexity when he is arresting black people who are a reflection of himself. He beat George Reeves almost to death. That was historically what happened. 

He, having done that, the reason he ran away is the equivalent of Bass Reeves could quite justly arrest him and have him put away forever or maybe even hung. And that’s part of his story too. And that’s Just the reality of being black in America is that you harbor feelings that are very complicated about this country because of what, at points, it does to you and what, at points, you feel about it.

In terms of embrace, in terms of being marginalized, in terms of being proud, in terms of its history, but your history within it. It is so complicated. And to have an eight hour narrative, to take a look at that through the eyes of not just a black man, but a black family, where there is love. But there is also absence, and there is complication, for all of the reasons I’m talking about.

That’s how we get to the point of eroding prejudice around characters the likes of this being seen. Because anyone and everyone can relate to that level of contradiction and complication. Maybe not the specifics of it. But that’s what it is to be a human being. We are not just slaves. We are not just this.

We are not just, in terms of this era. We’re so many things. And that’s what you see through this narrative. And, and, and we wanted to embrace that because that’s just the reality of what it must have been. 

Cortney Wills: Well, I think it is really important, really beautiful. I’m so glad that you, um, pushed it through because you could have given up and, you know, My only criticism is I wish I had 20 episodes, not an eight-episode anthology.

David Oyelowo: Thank you. Real, real pleasure. I appreciate that. Truly. Thank you. 

Cortney Wills: You take care. 

David Oyelowo:You too. Bye bye. 

Cortney Wills: Bye