Buck and the Preacher

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Synopsis

With his rousingly entertaining directorial debut, Sidney Poitier helped rewrite the history of the western, bringing Black heroes to a genre in which they had always been sorely underrepresented. Combining boisterous buddy comedy with blistering, Black Power–era political fury, Poitier and a marvelously mischievous Harry Belafonte star as a tough and taciturn wagon master and an unscrupulous, pistol-packing “preacher,” who join forces in order to take on the white bounty hunters threatening a westward-bound caravan of recently freed enslaved people. A superbly crafted revisionist landmark, Buck and the Preacher subverts Hollywood conventions at every turn and reclaims the western genre in the name of Black liberation.

Picture 9/10

Sidney Poitier’s directorial debut, Buck and the Preacher, comes to Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and is presented on a dual-layer disc in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The 1080p/24hz high-definition presentation has been sourced from a new 4K restoration conducted by Sony Pictures Home Entertainment and scanned from the 35mm original camera negative.

Like most recent Sony 4K restorations the one for Buck and the Preacher looks exceptional. It feels as though the 4K scan picks up every speck of dust and dirt present, rendering it all cleanly, including the dust kick up by the horses. Long shots of the landscape closer to the end of the film can show a staggering level of detail, the textures on a rocky cliffside looking especially extraordinary. The film also features a heavy-but-fine grainy texture to it and the scan appears to have captured it perfectly while Criterion’s encode does a decent enough job rendering it; it keeps a mostly clean look. No other digital artifacts are ever apparent.

The restoration work has been very thorough itself, and I don’t recall any sort of blemish ever popping up. The colour palette leans browns and greens (naturally) but there are some sharp reds scattered about and the blues in the sky look gorgeous. Black levels are rich and shadow details are strong overall, yet some day-for-night shots can feature a murkier, flatter look in comparison to the rest of the film. To be fair, this is more than likely just a byproduct of the technique. Outside of those scenes the presentation is an otherwise outstanding one.

Audio 7/10

Criterion presents the film’s monaural soundtrack in single-channel PCM. It ends up being a unexpectedly dynamic one with sharp shotgun and pistol blasts littering the film’s action sequences. Dialogue also shows some distinct highs and lows, and damage is not an issue. An impressive sounding audio presentation.

Extras 8/10

Criterion’s special edition puts a special focus on the working relationship between director/star Sidney Poitier and his co-star Harry Belafonte, shown mostly through a few archival interviews included here. A 13-minute behind-the-scenes featurette has the two talking about their own backgrounds before getting into what they’re hoping to achieve with the film and how it will address a history, that of Black Americans in the west, mostly unrepresented in the mainstream studio system.

For what appears to be more of a promotional piece I was surprised Columbia Pictures allowed the two to be as forthcoming as they end up being, both bringing up the Vietnam War and their (not at all flattering) thoughts on what the American Dream is, but it still ends up being a rather good and thoughtful discussion. It also shows their friendly and joking relationship with one another, the two playfully ribbing or attempting to one-up the other. This ribbing then carries on through to the other discussions, including a 28-minute excerpt from a 1972 episode of Soul! featuring the two promoting the film. Here they discuss the historical context of the story, which focuses on the promises of land ownership made to freed slaves after the Civil War and how many (including former slave owners) did everything they could to make sure none of it happened. The two also get into their respective success stories, building off of comments made in the previous feature on how they were able to get where they were thanks to how the suffering of past artists like Stepin Fetchit (Lincoln Perry) helped clear out some obstacles, with the hope their own success will make it even easier for future generations.

It too proves to be a fun archival interview yet the best one here may be their 64-minute appearance on The Dick Cavett Show. Belafonte walks out first and sets things up by talking about the film and “uglifying” himself for the role before talking about the history it captures and discussing the origins of terms like “Buffalo Soldier.” Poitier eventually joins them and from here the discussion delves a bit more into the production with an explanation on how Poitier came to direct after realizing their initial director, Joseph Sargent, wasn’t going to work. Despite their contract stating they could pick the director, having a Black director proved problematic for the studio so Poitier had to tread carefully and he ultimately just snuck in there and started directing without running it by anybody, figuring if he just did it it would be harder to stop. The studio was eventually fine with it. There are some of those expected awkward moments that Cavett tends to effortlessly walk into (there’s an initially awkward conversation about how Poitier worked to lose his West Indian accent, though the conversation does eventually prove to be interesting) but the candor of the two guests is great and the interview ends with a fascinating, if horrifying story around a 1964 trip the two made down south to help in voter registrations, which was around the same time as the murder of three activists in Mississippi. A great discussion in the end.

Criterion then records a couple of new interviews. First is a 24-minute one featuring author Mia Mask who sits to discuss the history of Black representation in American Westerns, which was minimal despite Black Americans playing a substantial part in the building of the American west. She even takes the time to talk about the respective careers of the film’s two stars and how criticism lobbed at Poitier over how he only made films to make “White people feel good about themselves” would push him down a path to do a film like Buck and the Preacher. She then takes the time to discuss the film’s strengths and weaknesses, focusing more time on the elements that really stick out to her, like how the film takes the time to address the displacement of the Native population and the role that even Black Americans played in that. It’s a solid and fascinating academic inclusion that also does a wonderful job contextualizing the film to the period of its production.

Belafonte’s daughter Gina Belafonte also appears to talk about her father, first sharing some stories around how he and Poitier first crossed each other’s paths (with one coincidence sparking Poitier's rise to stardom) before talking about his political activism and stage/film/music career. She also shares stories around filming Buck and the Preacher (her family all learned how to ride horses) and explains how the look of her father in the film was all his idea. Running a brisk 14-minutes it adds a nice personal slant to the features.

Aisha Harris then provides a short essay on the film in the included insert. It’s a good, quick read t 4-pages, though it does end up feeling a bit like a summary of the on-disc content.

It’s not a packed edition but through the interviews, archival and new, the release does do a splendid job covering the film’s production and explaining its importance in the context of representation in the Western genre.

Closing

A solid edition featuring some wonderful archival interviews and an excellent new high-definition presentation. Highly recommended.

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Directed by: Sidney Poitier
Year: 1972
Time: 103 min.
 
Series: The Criterion Collection
Edition #: 1140
Licensor: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Release Date: August 23 2022
MSRP: $39.95
 
Blu-ray
1 Disc | BD-50
1.85:1 ratio
English 1.0 PCM Mono
Subtitles: English
Region A
 
 New interview with Mia Mask, author of Black Rodeo: A History of the African American Western   Behind-the-scenes footage featuring actor-director Sidney Poitier and actor Harry Belafonte   Interviews with Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte from 1972 episodes of Soul and The Dick Cavett Show   New interview with Gina Belafonte, daughter of Harry Belafonte   An essay by critic Aisha Harris