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David Oyelowo on bringing justice to the legacy of an American hero in “Lawmen: Bass Reeves”

David Oyelowo on bringing justice to the legacy of an American hero in “Lawmen: Bass Reeves”

Bass Reeves has been popping up pretty regularly in popular culture over the last few years. The great Delroy Lindo stepped into his cowboy boots in 2021's under-appreciated The Harder They Fall. Reeves appeared briefly in HBO's 2019 limited series Watchmen as the inspiration behind Louis Gossett Jr.'s Will Reeves, a.k.a. Hooded Justice. He was portrayed by Colman Domingo in a 2016 episode of Timeless and by Jaleel White in a 2015 episode of Drunk History.

But way before that, Reeves was a possible inspiration behind The Lone Ranger. And no wonder. As the first Black deputy U.S. marshal west of the Mississippi River, Reeves made some 3,000 arrests without ever suffering a single wound.

The Lone Ranger is well known to Americans as an icon of the Wild West, but his real-life — and Black — counterpart has only just begun to break into the national conscious. Lawmen: Bass Reeves, a new series from Taylor Sheridan, creator of the massively popular Yellowstone universe, starring and co-produced by David Oyelowo, could introduce this American hero to a whole new generation and audience.

David Oyelowo as Bass Reeves in Lawmen: Bass Reeves streaming on Paramount+
David Oyelowo as Bass Reeves in Lawmen: Bass Reeves streaming on Paramount+

Sarah Coulter/Paramount+ David Oyelowo as Bass Reeves in 'Lawmen: Bass Reeves'

Originally intended as a spinoff of 1883, which itself was a prequel to Yellowstone, the project morphed into an anthology not tied to the Yellowstone-verse that would follow the adventures of other officers of the law, beginning with Reeves. Chad Feehan serves as creator and showrunner with Sheridan as an executive producer.

"Bass Reeves was an extraordinary man who lived an extraordinary life at an extraordinary time in America's history," Oyelowo says in an interview conducted prior to the SAG-AFTRA strike. "He was enslaved, he went on to fight in the Civil War, he escaped enslavement during that time, lived with Native Americans for a number of years where he learned a bunch of skills that became applicable when he went on to be a deputy marshal, and had a career that spanned nearly 40 years in law enforcement."

Lawmen: Bass Reeves
Lawmen: Bass Reeves

Sarah Coulter/Paramount+ Lauren E. Banks and David Oyelowo as Jennie and Bass Reeves

Oyelowo, who's no stranger to portraying American heroes, continues, "When you contextualize that life with these seminal moments in American history of slavery, Reconstruction, going into Jim Crow, and to have that level of success and notoriety as a lawman is just extraordinary."

Reeves was born into slavery in Arkansas in July 1838. When the Civil War broke out, he was forced into the Confederate Army by George Reeves, the son of his owner, Arkansas state legislator William Steele Reeves. He eventually escaped the Army, fleeing to Indian Territory to live among the Cherokee, Creeks and Seminoles until the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment legally ending slavery in America.

Lawmen: Bass Reeves
Lawmen: Bass Reeves

Sarah Coulter/Paramount+ David Oyelowo as Bass Reeves

Reeves returned to Arkansas a free man where, thanks to his facility with Native American languages, he was recruited by Judge Isaac Parker as a deputy marshal for the western area of the state in 1875. Reeves served 32 years as a federal peace officer, retiring in 1907, with a record of arresting thousands of felons — including his own son, who was charged with murder.

"One of the joys of this show has been populating the cast with truly great actors who can embody the time," Oyelowo says. "There are actors who have something contemporaneous about them, and then there's actors like Dennis Quaid, Shea Whigham, Barry Pepper, Forrest Goodluck, and Lauren E. Banks who sort of feel like they've been here for a long time.

"And I'm not talking about their age, I'm just talking about that sort of primal feeling," Oyelowo explains. "It's been amazing to have these sets, have these costumes, and then have these actors that, you know, if you squint and block out the cameras, you do feel like you've somehow found yourself in a time machine and that's been a real joy."

Further proving Oyelowo's point, EW can exclusively share these authentic tin-type images, shot using the 19th century wet plate collodion method, the style of photography that would have been prominent during Bass Reeves' era. The images were shot on a period, late-1800s large format camera with an 1863 Dallmeyer lens — lending them a dreamy timeless quality.

Lawmen: Bass Reeves
Lawmen: Bass Reeves

Sarah Coulter/Paramount+ Dennis Quaid as U.S. Deputy Marshal Sherrill Lynn

Quaid stars as fellow U.S. Deputy Marshal Sherrill Lynn, Banks as Reeves' wife Jennie, and Demi Singleton as his daughter Sally.

Lawmen: Bass Reeves
Lawmen: Bass Reeves

Sarah Coulter/Paramount+ Dennis Quaid as Sherrill Lynn

Lawmen: Bass Reeves
Lawmen: Bass Reeves

Sarah Coulter/Paramount+ Lauren E. Banks as Jennie Reeves

Lawmen: Bass Reeves
Lawmen: Bass Reeves

Sarah Coulter/Paramount+ Demi Singleton as Sally Reeves

Donald Sutherland recurs as Judge Parker, along with Garrett Hedlund as Garrett Montgomery, a member of Reeves' posse, and Dale Dickey as the Widow Dolliver, a woman who's "seen it all." The cast also includes Whigam as George Reeves; Pepper as Esau Pierce, leader of the 1st Cherokee Mounted Rifles; and Goodluck as Billy Crow, a young Cherokee man with an affinity for dime store books and gaudy style.

Lawmen: Bass Reeves
Lawmen: Bass Reeves

Sarah Coulter/Paramount+ Shea Whigham as George Reeves

Lawmen: Bass Reeves
Lawmen: Bass Reeves

Sarah Coulter/Paramount+ Barry Pepper as Esau Pierce

Lawmen: Bass Reeves
Lawmen: Bass Reeves

Sarah Coulter/Paramount+ Forrest Goodluck as Billy Crow

After years of appearing as a side character, with Lawmen, Bass Reeves finally gets to take center stage as the star of his own narrative, 113 years after his death. Although he's British, Oyelowo is excited to shine a revelatory light on Reeves and this period of history for an American audience.

"My goal, my hope, my ambition for this has always been to have an opportunity to contextualize the contribution of Black people to this country in a way that colors outside of the lines of what we have normally seen," Oyelowo says.

"I really hope people come away [with], and have a reframing and an acceptance of, the fact that even though it was under duress, Black people were so instrumental in building this country," the Selma actor continues. "I really hope that, especially as we get so many slave narratives in this period, this is one of empowerment — literally — this man is empowered, and he takes that power and he uses it for the good of his community and his country. And that's really what I hope people are left with at the end of the show."

Lawmen: Bass Reeves premieres Nov. 5 on Paramount+.

Make sure to check out EW's Fall TV Preview cover story on Gen V — as well as all of our 2023 Fall TV Preview content, releasing through Sept. 21.

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