Not your grandfather’s Lone Ranger
With cinematography that, at times, evokes the landscape-as-story style of Terrence Malick to the quick paced story that doesn’t get bogged down in dialogue, Isaiah Washington’s directorial debut, “Corsicana,” takes a step in the right direction for the Western genre of filmmaking.
“Corsicana,” released in February of 2023 on Amazon Prime, tells a fictionalized story of American lawman Bass Reeves. In this story, set in 1894’s Texas, Reeves is joined by former lawman turned fugitive Sam Tanner and a former Union spy with sharpshooter skills to track down the murderous Donner Gang as the gang works to drive ranchers and farmers off their land to make way for a nefarious oil baron.
“Corsicana” is, at heart, a story about one of the greatest lawmen in American history – Deputy U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves, whose exploits were so legendary that early Hollywood threw a white man into his saddle and called him the Lone Ranger.
“Corsicana” makes a valiant attempt to reclaim Reeves’ story from Hollywood and make a move toward righting a wrong of Hollywood – the whitewashing of an American hero.
Isaiah Washington dons the mantle of Bass Reeves, and his performance is nothing short of a master class in acting – both in his physicality, which is filled with purpose and vocal dexterity, which displays a depth of emotion and nuance that belies Washington’s years of experience inhabiting the lives of others as a profession. This should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the actor.
Washington had some good examples to draw from in his directorial debut, considering he has worked with some of the best directors Hollywood has to offer including Spike Lee, Clint Eastwood and Steven Soderbergh to name but a few.
“Corsicana” is, at times, violent. But most of the violence is suggested rather than seen. Still, this is not a movie meant for children or the squeamish.
Violence aside, my biggest gripe with the film would be the often heavy handed sound design that borders on overwhelming at times, turning what could be slow, poignant moments into a cacophony of aural distraction. This is especially disconcerting considering many of those visual moments were highly reminiscent of The Thin Red Line, a film in which the scenery itself becomes merged with character creating a depth of scene not often accomplished in film.
Robert Johnson’s script, although stripped of unnecessary dialogue, includes some flashback scenes that attempt to fill in Reeves’ backstory but don’t, strictly speaking, move the plot forward. That said, they are short enough, and infrequent enough, to not make themselves overly distracting.
Considering the film takes place a mere 46 years after the Mexican-American War it would have been nice to see fewer white characters and more Native Americans, blacks and Mexicans represented but, as in most Hollywood movies, such people are largely erased from the background of American history.
Despite this oversight of history the Donner gang, which served as the antagonist to Washington’s Reeves, seemed a fairly accurate display of frontier depravity with a standout performance by Texas actor Billy Blair in the part of Miller. Unfortunately, Noel Gugilemi (Juan), the sole Mexican character, was tragically underutilized.
Besides Washington, there were only two other black actors: Stacey Dash as Reeve’s wife Jennie and Thomas Q. Jones as a young Bass Reeves. It would have been nice to see at least some of the farmers and secondary characters be portrayed by something other than white actors. It would have also been more historically accurate. This is, however, a small complaint.
Washington was the perfect choice for the role of Reeves and, on the whole, Corsicana adds to the Western genre a story of one of the greatest, if not the greatest, American lawman to ever wear a badge.
“Corsicana” is available to rent or buy through Amazon Prime Video.