The term “blaxploitation” has always sat uneasily with me because there’s nothing exploitative about many of the movies that made the term an honorific. Often, these exemplary works are simply genre films from the nineteen-seventies, made by Black directors and featuring Black protagonists and actors. They featured outlaw-heroes like those of white Hollywood, who were all the freer to make mischief in the post-Hays Code, post-“Bonnie and Clyde” age of the late nineteen-sixties and beyond. One of the greatest examples, “Thomasine & Bushrod,” from 1974, is a Western—a hidden classic of the genre as well as a film of modernist originality. It’s by Gordon Parks, Jr., the director who’d become famous, two years earlier, for “Super Fly.” (He died in 1979, at the age of forty-four, after making only four features.) What Parks offers here is a Western of high purpose, high style, and a high cool factor, which radically revises Western conventions in light of the experience and the history of its Black protagonists.
“Thomasine & Bushrod” (which is streaming on the Criterion Channel, Tubi, Prime Video, and many other services) is set on the brink of modernity—in Texas, in 1911—and the brink of the mythologizing of the West in movies themselves . Its protagonists are young, Black, and hip, leaping out from the historical framework with their bearing, their daring, and their sense of style. Thomasine (Vonetta McGee) is a bounty hunter who captures her ella prey—white men—with expert marksmanship and keen erotic wiles. HP Bushrod (Max Julien, who also wrote the script and co-produced the film) is a cowboy and an escapee from jail who’s on a mission: to avenge the killing of his sister by a psychopathic white bank robber, Adolph (yes) Smith (Jackson D. Kane). Thomasine finds Bushrod’s name on a “Wanted” poster and tracks him down, not to capture him but to team up with him—again. They’re a former couple, and, when they remember cute—holding each other at gunpoint—it’s because the forceful and independent Thomasine wants to give their relationship another try. (She makes it clear that his de ella male-supremacist de ella urges de ella to turn her housewifely is what drove her away the first time.)
The landscape that the pair negotiate, separately and together, is a horror maze of racist violence, insults, and attitudes—and of misogynous menace. Bushrod finds the bodies of two Black men hanging outside a town, lynched as an explicitly posted warning to other Black people to stay out. Thomasine, delivering an outlaw to a marshal, is taunted both racially and sexually even as she enforces the law. Bushrod, playing cards with white men in a saloon, endures racist epithets and responds with apt force. His sister’s killing him is framed as both a racist crime and a sexual one.
The movie puts Thomasine and Bushrod on their path with an understated excitement that meshes with their fierce sense of principle. Roaming the terrain on horseback, under the wide brim of a beaten-up straw hat, Thomasine guns down a white man in a panoramic wide take that puts predator and prey together in a single taut, brazen image. Tracking down Adolph leads to a wild shoot-out that Parks films with a similar breathlessly reserved precision; it’s capped by the extraordinary touch of Bushrod reloading his revolver with a click of metal on metal that resounds like a thunderbolt of righteous fury. After that shoot-out, Marshal Bogardie (George Murdock) wants to arrest Bushrod for murder, but Thomasine comes to the rescue, and the couple get out of town on horseback, finding refuge—and lovingly planning their future—in the wild. Some land, a home, a family—and no money, no prospects, no chance for young Black people to establish themselves on the meagre wages that Bushrod collects. They turn to robbing banks, starting with one that’s owned by a jovial white grandee (Bud Conlan) who cheerfully declares, “We’ve got to be nice to our Negroes.”
Curiously, Thomasine is something of a media person—and her alertness to public images is a key aspect of the movie’s modernism. As a bounty hunter, she combs newspapers for leads and studies the official advertising of “Wanted” posters, with their photos and lurid descriptions. When she finds that she and Bushrod, too, are wanted, she takes control of their published image by way of a small-town photography studio. (The movie’s very title—Thomasine first—is a reflection of her canny public-relations handiwork.) They come away from their first bank robbery with a contraption that, as skilled riders, they’d previously ridiculed—an automobile—and it carries them through the region on a spree of bank robberies that turn them into folk heroes. Their exploits are widely reported in the press, and Thomasine keeps a close watch on the coverage. Parks presents the new world of motor vehicles amid horse country with the gimlet-eyed comedy of slow-speed chases through rugged hill country and mechanical troubles at inopportune moments.
Publicity and technology ramp up the couple’s criminal bravado, antic exuberance, and joyous romance, but these tools are no distraction from the pair’s earnest intent and the ambient menace that they face. Thomasine and Bushrod join up (as sheriffs relate) and share their pelf with Mexicans, Native Americans, other Black people, and poor white people. They visit a cliff-dwelling Comanche wisewoman and former chief named Pecolia (played by the great Juanita Moore, best known for her Oscar-nominated performance in Douglas Sirk’s “Imitation of Life”), who discloses to Bushrod his mixed Native American and Black ancestry her. They team up with Jomo J. Anderson (Glynn Turman), a Jamaican outlaw whose comedically theatrical manner embodies his self-aware performance for survival amid white society.
And, once they take to the road, Thomasine and Bushrod also dress the part; their fancy and flashy outfits are part of their self-manufactured legend, and it all makes for a brash contrast with the humble and submissive manner that they affect among whites as part of their criminal schemes. “Thomasine & Bushrod” is filled with fine points of performance, in which hero and heroine negotiate an essentially and comprehensively racialized society. Racist and sexist pressures pervade intimate spaces and private lives and shape identities and self-images, and the characters forge a sense of style as a way of coping and as a mode of protest, defiance, and self-assertion. As Thomasine and Bushrod share a moment of tender domesticity in hiding, she wonders how history will remember them. Bushrod replies, “I guess it just depends on who writes it.” Here, Parks does the writing, transforming history and his era in real time.