Noble Savages, Black Cowboys and Vengeful Bounty Hunters. Exploring Images of the Native American and Black Other in the American Western
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Since the early twentieth century the Western film has offered American audiences a white conquest narrative and championed American exceptionalism, contributing to the nation’s identity project. In doing so Hollywood has notoriously marginalized people of color. Images of Hollywood’s ‘Indian’ – traditionally framed as the quintessential Other existing as a binary opposite to the white cowboy hero – transformed over time, reflecting shifting attitudes towards questions of race and racism. However, Native American characters were not the only minorities to appear in the Western. African American characters also occasionally arrived on screen, but their significance has unjustly been overlooked by film scholars working in this field. This thesis traces the visual status of Native American and African American characters in the Hollywood Western, from the birth of the genre to more recent productions of the late twentieth century. This thesis explores notions of ‘Self’ and ‘Other’ in the Hollywood Western, discussing both white produced and black produced Westerns. Its focus is on images of Native Americans in Westerns, blacks in Westerns, and black Westerns. Its selection of sources is innovative in the sense that it incorporates Black Cinema productions and considers how these cultural products appropriated the Western genre formula by foregrounding narratives with the intention of appealing to black audiences. In doing so, Black Westerns effectively resist Hollywood’s erroneous removal of African Americans from the memory of the frontier. This research uncovers the different kind of strategies black producers employed to adapt and critique the Western genre. It illustrates how the Black Western became an effective tool to re-read the American past, re-directing audience sympathy and prioritizing black experience, ultimately allowing African Americans to reclaim their position on the mythic frontier where they rightfully belong.