How Hollywood Whitewashed the Old West

For decades, the film industry has obscured the role people of color played in the American frontier. Today, movies are trying to reckon with that past.

Harry Carey Jr. (L) and John Wayne (R) from John Ford's 1956 film The Searchers (Warner Bros. )

As movie genres go, the Western is a workhorse. It draws from a well of cultural symbols meant to capture the essence of America, including the freedom of the open frontier and the righteous self-determination of man. Standing tall inside this cinematic shorthand is the cowboy himself, a figure commonly understood to be an excellent shot who rides horses and who, above all, is white. This narrow image is foundational to the genre, which includes films such as John Sturges’s 1960 classic The Magnificent Seven. A retelling of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, the movie centers on a group of seven white men hired to protect a Mexican village being terrorized by a band of outlaws.

But a new adaptation of the film offers a notably different set of heroes. Directed by Antoine Fuqua and starring Denzel Washington, the 2016 version centers around a team of misfits trying to defend a town built around a gold mine. In addition to Washington, the “seven” include Byung-hun Lee, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, and Martin Sensmeier—all of whom subvert the conventional idea of the Western hero. But if anything, this subversion brings the movie closer to history: The Old West and the iconic cowboys who populate it in movies were never solely white to begin with. In recent years, filmmakers have grappled with this reality to varying degrees of success. Despite the admirable efforts of Westerns such as The Revenant and The Magnificent Seven, movies like Django Unchained, The Keeping Room, The Lone Ranger, and Bone Tomahawk all show how difficult it is to modernize the genre without continuing to peddle an inaccurate and exclusionary account of American history.

Cowboy culture refers to a style of ranching introduced in North America by Spanish colonists in the 16th century—a time when most ranch owners were Spanish and many ranch hands were Native. None of the first cowboys were (non-Hispanic) white. And while historians don’t know exact figures, by the late 19th century roughly one in three cowboys (known as vaqueros) was Mexican. The recognizable cowboy fashions, technologies, and lexicon—hats, bandanas, spurs, stirrups, lariat, lasso—are all Latino inventions.

White Americans wouldn’t be exposed to, and subsequently incorporate, cowboy culture into their ranching practices until 200 years after its inception, once westward expansion brought Anglo-colonists and African slaves into the area in the early 1800s. At that time, cowboys did the kind of hard labor that wealthy white Americans would often force others to do, meaning many were black slaves. Around this same time, the frontier was also populated by roughly 20,000 Chinese immigrants who contributed significantly to the development of the West, including the construction of the first Transcontinental Railroad. In other words, people of color were not only present at the inception of the Wild West—but they were also its primary architects. And yet, even today, black cowboys are fighting for recognition.

Most historians and cowfolk of color agree that Hollywood is responsible for popularizing the falsehood of the all-white Wild West. Filmmakers built a genre that hinged on racial conflict and then, in defiance of that fact, filled the silver screen with only white protagonists. While whitewashing remains a modern problem, it has a long history in American film: In the very first Hollywood movie, 1910’s In Old California, white actors played non-white roles.

This practice was especially commonplace in Westerns, which relied on racist stereotypes of Native people as bloodthirsty savages and drew inspiration for stories about white heroes from the experiences of freed slaves in the West. The story of one of America’s most eminent frontiersmen, Jim Beckwourth, formed the basis for 1951’s Tomahawk, which starred a white actor even though Beckwourth was black. The famous 1956 Western epic The Searchers was based on a black man named Britt Johnson. He was played by John Wayne, one of the genre’s biggest movie stars, who in 1971 told Playboy, “I believe in white supremacy until blacks are educated to the point of responsibility.” Even the fictional character of the Lone Ranger (who originally debuted in a radio show in 1933) shares striking similarities to Bass Reeves, believed to be the first black U.S. Deputy Marshal west of the Mississippi.

By the time Westerns gained wider prominence with movie audiences in the 1950s, the ubiquity of the genre’s all-white protagonists had helped fully obscure the reality of race on the American frontier. Crucial to this effort were directors like Cecil B. DeMille (The Squaw Man, Rose of the Rancho, The Trail of Lonesome Pine, The Buccaneers) and John Ford (My Darling Clementine, Fort Apache, The Searchers). Non-white characters were usually antagonists with names like “Mexican Henchman” or “Facetious Redskin.” When filmmakers weren’t misrepresenting other races (whether intentionally or not), they were often ignoring them entirely: Ford’s 1924 opus The Iron Horse manages to tell the story of the country’s first transcontinental railroad without Chinese actors, save a few who were background extras.

Over the next few decades Hollywood would occasionally cast a black cowboy to appear alongside otherwise all-white casts in Westerns such as Lonesome Dove (1989) or Unforgiven (1992). In a 1993 Chicago Tribune article about Beckwourth, the writer commended the aforementioned films for their palatable diversity while criticizing 1993’s Posse for being “too politically correct” with its all-black cast (which, historically, would have been more plausible). Both before and following the Civil War, many black men fled to the frontier for a cowboys’s life of freedom. The broad notion of “freedom” stitched into the seams of the Western canon has far more cultural significance than the genre has ever truly acknowledged.

Whenever Westerns spring back into relevance, they resort to the same habits of misrepresentation. The result is that racial ignorance has been stratified, brick by brick, into the foundations of the genre on the groundless basis of “historical accuracy.” So what happens when a modern Western tries to remain faithful to genre conventions while being less regressive on issues of race?

Viewers wind up with an ouroboros like The Hateful Eight, a film Quentin Tarantino intended as commentary on American racial inequity, made with the art form that helped edify it. The movie’s predecessor, Django Unchained, is also supposedly a revisionist Western, but the title character (played by Jamie Foxx) is inert until the white hero Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) takes Django and guides him forward. The Keeping Room (2014), set at the close of the Civil War, was billed as a “feminist, revisionist” movie but clumsily equates the problems white women face with those endured by enslaved black women. In one cringe-worthy moment, the sullen Louise (Hailee Steinfeld) calls Mad (Muna Otaru) the n-word, at which her older sister Augusta (Brit Marling) snaps: “I done told you, Louise. We all niggers now.”

Such films have a difficult time critiquing the systemic power imbalances that helped usher the genre into being, despite the intentions of those involved. Tarantino said he wanted to “tap into” modern racial strife for The Hateful Eight, and the Keeping Room’s star, Marling, said of the film, “It’s an incredibly prescient movie in that this country is in some ways hopefully waking up to racism.” But both films depict racism through a white lens: In each, a black character experiences violence until a Caucasian hero steps in to enlighten the attacker. In this way, the films offer the same white-savior premise as 1960’s The Magnificent Seven without really critiquing it. But even these films are an improvement over works like The Lone Ranger (2013) and Bone Tomahawk (2015), which take the radically conservative approach and offer genocide so gratuitously violent that even Tarantino objects. In keeping with tradition, these films present racially motivated conflicts earnestly, and in The Lone Ranger, Johnny Depp plays the famously Native character Tonto.

If the Western genre is to truly reckon with its past, then Hollywood needs to start with the basics. Studios should hire more directors and writers who aren’t white, while more regularly seeking out stories about the American frontier that feature both characters and actors of color. This has already begun: The Revenant (2015), from the Oscar-winning Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu, was made with remarkable realism. It was meticulously researched, and the Native characters were played by Native actors. The film itself is was based on William Ashley’s 1823 expedition up the Missouri river, of which at least three black men were members (including, interestingly enough, Beckwourth).

The Magnificent Seven, too, has received attention for its “rainbow coalition” cast. The director Fuqua, for his part, has a sturdier grounding in American history than most of his forbears. “The west was a mixed bag of people coming from everywhere,” he told ScreenDaily. “It was more diverse than what we see in westerns.” But one of the biggest criticisms of the film has been that the characters of color are there “just for show” and inadvertently treated as tokens—a frequent flaw of “diverse” major-studio ensemble movies such as Suicide Squad. It’s unfair to expect a couple contemporary Westerns to reverse the genre’s legacy, but it’s heartening to see broader representation in big-budget films with all-star performers and famed directors at the helm.

In a Guardian interview, Denzel Washington tried to downplay the idea that The Magnificent Seven was trying to explore deeper or more serious themes. “The average person who’s paying to see it is just looking for a good time,” he said, adding that people go to the movies to escape. “It ain’t that deep.” So, too, decades worth of Westerns offered their own kind of escape from reality. At the turn of the 20th century, the country was trying to construct a new national identity following the end of slavery, and amid immigration and westward expansion. Through it all, stories about cowboys and renegades on horseback offered entertainment, but also fantastical utopias of white heroism. These tropes will always be part of the genre’s past. But Hollywood’s gradual efforts to extend more opportunities to people of color and to—hopefully—learn from its mistakes, may prompt more viewers to eventually see the all-white Wild West for what it is: fiction.