Horses and Different Colors: Race in Recent TV Westerns
I’m a man who enjoys his Westerns. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is one of my favorite movies. Deadwood is among my favorite TV shows. Jonah Hex (despite the movie) is my favorite DC Comics character. I love reading Louis L’Amour or Elmore Leonard, listening to John Wayne’s drawl and Clint Eastwood’s rasp and deciding which version of True Grit I like best. My first self-published novel, Clark Reeper Tales, is a Western and so is The Bloody Ballads of El Mosaico, one of the upcoming series that will be published by Curiosity Quills (though those have considerably more zombies, magic and monsters than a normal Western). And because I like Westerns so much, I often end up thinking of matters related to race.
It may seem a little farfetched to imagine an issue as big as race being decided amidst a genre known for high noon gunfights, stage coach hold-ups and buxom saloon dancers. But you’ll have to remember that Westerns – except for modern ones or when they’re set in space -- are set in a specific time and place that was extremely racially charged. It was during this post-Civil War period that the notion of America as a ‘melting pot’ really became true. Immigrants from Europe poured into the United States. So did immigrants from Asia. Mexicans, many of whom still had the experience of the Mexican War fresh in their minds, were a major force, as were the freed slaves who headed west. There were the Indians too, with their own complex and tragic section of American history. People of all these races were colliding, interacting and trying to survive in the Wild West and their experiences make up the modern America. That’s one of the reasons why I love Westerns – it forces Americans to look at the mirror at their own past and see just how brutal and horrifying it is.
Not all Westerns deal with these issues and a lot of the Classic Westerns do so in blatantly offense and dated ways. But the modern Western show Hell on Wheels, which recently finished its first season on AMC, tackled them head on. The results, especially compared to HBO’s brilliant Deadwood, were interesting to say the least.
Hell on Wheels is set in 1865 and tells the story of the building of the Transcontinental Railroad. The show received mixed, but generally favorable reviews and I found a lot to like in Hell on Wheels myself. It did receive some, perhaps unfair, comparisons to HBO’s Deadwood. Hell on Wheels lacks the sophisticated almost Shakespearean dialogue of Deadwood (and the copious profanity that comes with HBO), but it does its best to carve out its own niche, with a plot that’s heavier on action than intrigue. Another frequent criticism leveled at Hell on Wheels was about its treatment of race. Initially, I agreed.
A major character in Hell on Wheels is the freed slave, Elam Ferguson. Played by Common with a great brooding intensity and a purposeful anger, Elam is a kind of leader amongst the Black railroad worker. Critics pointed out that Elam often attempts to change things and clashes with the Whites in the camp – demonstrating very modern ideas about race. Elam’s actions bring questions of prejudice and racism explosively to the forefront, when the setting demands that they be kept simmering in the background. At first, I agreed with these critics that Elam’s outlook was anachronistic. I simply looked back to how Deadwood handled it and saw the difference.
In Deadwood, the shocking amounts of racism and prejudice are a fact of life. The Black characters, ranging from the stoic fellow who runs the livery and his dandy friend to George Hearst’s cook, understand the unfair way the world regards them and try to work with it, rather than change it. Other characters, like the Chinese mob boss and the Jewish shopkeeper, ignore racism when it comes up and try to get around it, even if other characters won’t let them. Race, by itself, isn’t often a point of contention. It’s shocking, depressing and disheartening for modern audiences, but Deadwood’s ethnic relations have a ring of veracity to them because for the vast majority of our nation’s history, that’s how things were. They were of course the courageous few who battled prejudice and it’s thanks to them that matters changed, but for most minorities in America, that kind of evil was just a cruel fact of life. It seemed that Hell on Wheels forgot that.
But later episodes convinced me that I was mistaken. The series gained its footing and its own feel, separate from Deadwood. And bits of Elam’s past were revealed. It was explained that he was mixed race, the illegitimate son of a plantation owner and a slave. Being of mixed racial descent, particularly in Elam’s case, has its own endless series of connotations and issues, especially in such a racially charged time period as the Old West. Another episode showed a flashback to his childhood, where it was revealed that his owner taught him to read at a young age, and had him recite verses from the Bible as a kind of joke. That experience – not a modern outlook – shaped and molded Elam’s character into the man he is during the time of the show.
Hell on Wheels probably isn’t as exceptional as Deadwood, but I still enjoyed it and think it’s defiantly a good Western show. It tackles the problems of the time period, regarding women, Indians, Irish and Blacks, in a way that shows the writers aren’t afraid of dealing with those bigger social issues in America’s history. And it’s got gunfights, revolvers, robber barons, saloon girls and all the other hallmarks that make a Western great. It might not be up there in the Western Pantheon with some of my other favorites, but it’s got some great characters, like Elam, that I can’t wait to follow in the second season. I urge everyone who likes cowboys, horses and some frank discussion on a violent, dark and fascinating part of America’s past to check it out.