The Comancheros 1961 American Western film.
A Fistful of Dollars 1964 Spaghetti Western film.
A Man Called Horse 1970 Western film.
Dances with Wolves 1990 American epic Western film.
Django Unchained 2012 American Revisionist Western film.
The Harder They Fall 2021 American Revisionist Western film.

These are the first sentences in the Internet’s Wikipedia articles about six movies of the “Western” genre.

There was a time when stories – and movies – featuring Black Cowboys in the American West were welcome, and not subjected to any kind of labeling. What happened?

See a trend? It’s a bit subtle and of course there’s an assumption you’ve seen these movies or are at least aware of them. Why are two of them labeled “revisionist”? Clearly, none of them are what could be called documentaries. The “Dollar” movies feature characters that are comical in their malice. Dances (it’s an Epic!) and Horse take liberties with the American West and Native Americans, and The Comancheros’ main claim to fame was the catchy theme music:

And then the Comancheros came a-ridin’ through the night
Stealin’ and a-killin’ takin’ everything in sight
Nothin’ left behind but the blood in the sand
The Comancheros are takin’ this land

But it did star John Wayne, so there’s that.

Django’s slave-owning characters, while not specified as real, are familiar in their homicidal portrayals.  Opening credits state that many of Harder’s African-American characters are “real” Western personages, making clear the events did not happen. Harder is the more recent and it is the most accurate Western, just because many of the characters actually lived.

But the descriptions for both? Revisionist.

Why? Is it because that label seems to be reserved for movies with Black lead actors? The word isn’t used for others with white lead actors, and we have almost a century of Western movies to look for the word. But in only a few years, the label revisionist has become egregious and difficult to defend simply because its application is dominated by the appearance of racism. Is it meant to be descriptive, derogatory, or dismissive?


How many of us consider that most Western movies are not based on fact, actual events, actual people? From Stagecoach to Shane, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence to How the West Was Won, several generations have been entertained, accepting the veracity of each.

We are also the TV generation: The Lone Ranger. Roy Rogers. Wagon Train. Bonanza. Gunsmoke. Rawhide. Each one of them starring white lead characters, and most of us know by now that when and if Native American, Black, or Hispanic characters showed up they were peripheral, maligned, and more often than not played by white actors. Hunky Burt Reynolds as the “half-breed” blacksmith in Gunsmoke is now cringe-worthy.

In truth, there weren’t that many gunfights in the street and there were no wagon-trains-in-a-circle fending off murderous Native American. Wagons might have been positioned at night to protect against the weather or keep animals from wandering off, but not to fight hostiles who suddenly appeared on yonder hill – it would have taken too long. You think those wagons had 4-wheel drive?

Portrayals of Native Americans have been even more quixotic. Murderous thieves; mild, mysterious, wise keepers of the land; helpful women, handsome braves. It’s literally all over the map.

Our love affair with the American West is embodied in these visuals. But they are white-dominated visuals, to such extent that the truth has been not only obscured but kicked into dust by spur-clad boots. It is estimated that fully a quarter of cowboys and ranch hands were Black, a number of them working in the American West even before the Civil War. Spanish-Mexican vaqueros lived in the West from Texas to California long before the pioneers; they stayed to teach the new land owners (they had to learn the ropes somehow, right?), and work the new farms and ranches.

But you wouldn’t know any of that from any of those western movies and TV shows. The stories, enchanting scenery, larger-than-life characters have obscured important facts.

At this point you’re wondering if I am advocating that all descriptions of all western movies be labeled “revisionist.” Of course not! Well, wait.

This might be an uncomfortable discussion, especially for the more fanatical Western movie buffs. But will future movies about the American West featuring Black actors or stories, even 100% fact-based, be stuck with that label, while movies featuring whites, 0% fact-based, aren’t? There are some voices – when you look – that are questioning the revisionist label, even suggesting the term “corrective.” Again, why apply any labels to only those, and not to others? Given the popularity of Django and now Harder, the movie industry is bound to be paying attention. Are they all destined to carry that label? And, why?