Before Taylor Sheridan’s Bass Reeves, there was Black Fox…

Black Fox and Bass Reeves: Past-Due Recognition
by Henry C. Parke

If you were to learn your history just from classic John Ford Westerns, you might conclude that the only Black man in the Old West was Woody Strode. Then again, if you learned your history from any other filmmaker of the time, you’d conclude that there were no Black people at all in the Old West. But the fact is, many formerly enslaved people moved west after the Civil War; in fact, historians tell us that one in every four or five cowboys was Black.

Happily, at long last, the stories of some exceptional Black westerners are finally being told. Today, all Western fans are well aware of the Taylor Sheridan-produced series Lawmen: Bass Reeves, about the legendary first Black Deputy Marshal of the Indian Territory. Many may be surprised to learn that the story of one of Reeves’ remarkable contemporaries, Britt Johnson, was told on the screen nearly 30 years ago in 1995’s Black Fox, a film that, like its subject, was largely forgotten until recently.

Black Fox was based on the first novel by Western powerhouse Matt Braun, who has gone on to write 51 more, including One Last Town, famously filmed in 1999 as You Know My Name, starring Sam Elliott as lawman Bill Tilghman. Black Fox was also based on real events and, more specifically, a real man, Britton Johnson, known as Britt Johnson.

Both Bass Reeves and Britt Johnson were former slaves. Both took their surnames from the men who had owned them. Both were family men with children, married to women they met while enslaved. Both men, through their decency and bravery, garnered the respect of local Indians. But while Reeves had to fight for his freedom, Johnson’s situation was quite different from Reeves’, and quite unusual.

While there are contradictions in the historical information about the slave-owning Johnson family, it is believed that Britt was born in Tennessee (or maybe Kentucky), and while he was technically the property of Moses Johnson, he was treated very much as a free man, was literate, and could do basic accounting. When the white Johnson family moved to Elm Creek, near Fort Belknap, Texas in the 1850s, they brought along Britt and his wife Mary, and not only was Britt the foreman of the Johnson’s ranch, but he also had a small ranch of his own and bred cattle and horses. Britt and Mary had three children.

With the start of the Civil War in 1861, Texas seceded from the Union, making it enemy territory for the Army. Fort Belknap’s troops withdrew immediately, and the fort was abandoned. On October 13 or 14, 1864, while Moses (or possibly his son, Alan) and Britt were away on ranch business, a combined war party of several hundred Comanche and Kiowa attacked Elm Creek. As a 73-year-old, John Johnson, the youngest son of Britt and Mary, would tell an interviewer in 1937, “After killing and stealing all they wanted to kill and steal, they gathered the prisoners. They took my mother, sister, and older brother, but killed my younger brother,” to settle the dispute between two Indians who both wanted to own him. They also killed many white people and took white women and children prisoner. When Britt returned, horrified at what they found, Britt went off, alone, to rescue his family.

Black Fox is the story of Britt’s rescue of not only his own family, held by the Kiowa, but the white captives, who were held by the Comanche. News of the World author Paulette Jiles—who earlier wrote The Color of Lightning, her version of the Britt Johnson saga—notes that Britt was one of the inspirations for John Ford’s The Searchers, with much of John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards character modeled on Britt. The irony is that Wayne’s character was racist with a particular hostility toward Indians. Britt Johnson was a Black man who spent over a year living among Comanche and Kiowa, winning their trust, in order to save his family.

John Johnson recalled, “In 1865, my father … was able to locate his family with this tribe of Indians and to redeem them … by trading the Indians corn, ponies, blankets, and calico, as the price for ransom.” A detail not used in the movie is that John was born while his mother and siblings were captives of the Kiowa. Britt had negotiated the terms of the ransom for his family without knowing he had another child. “When the exchange was being made, an old Indian squaw who was my mother’s guard wanted to keep me because I was born under her care, but mother refused to go without me, so I was bought from the Indian for twelve ears of corn.”

Although Black Fox was first aired on CBS in 1995, it was made two years earlier, not long after the stunning success of Lonesome Dove, by one of the same producers, Robert A. Halmi. It was designed cleverly to be shown either as a mini-series, or as three separate TV movies: Black Fox, Black Fox: The Price of Peace, and Black Fox: Good Men and Bad. Although the star is usually listed as Christopher Reeve, not surprisingly, the movies’ ‘Man of Steel’ does not portray Britt. Reeves plays Alan Johnson, who at least in this fictional version was raised as a brother alongside Britt. While it’s not clear if this relationship is the author’s invention, it’s a known fact that Alan was a real man who abhorred slavery, and when he inherited Britt and his family, he immediately freed them.

The part of Britt Johnson is played by Tony Todd, a Washington, D.C.-born, classically trained actor who won a scholarship to the Eugene O’Neill National Theater Institute in Connecticut. Physically imposing, with an authoritative baritone voice, he made his screen debut in 1986’s fantasy film, Sleepwalk, and made his first real splash in films as the lead non-zombie in the 1990 remake of Night of the Living Dead. He truly became a star in the horror genre when he played the demonic title villain in the three Candyman movies. Todd observes, “It’s very interesting that most of the roles I’ve gotten are grim, when I’m actually a very well-adjusted man and had a happy upbringing. I guess there are some dark shadows somewhere in there, but I’m a big kid.”

After quite a bit of horror, it must have been nice to play the resourceful ‘voice of reason’ in Black Fox, although it may have galled him that, while he played the title character, three times no less, he was billed after the supporting actor, Christopher Reeve. While today there are at least a half-dozen bankable Black stars who could play Britt, back in 1995, there was no Black actor who was right for the part, who was also a big enough star to get the film financed. Without Christopher Reeve or another actor of his stature and star power, Black Fox would never have been made.

It’s good that Reeve was so effective in the films and acquitted himself so well on horseback. Tragically, shortly after the airing of the Black Fox films, Christopher Reeve would take a horse-fall that would paralyze him. He died in 2004 at age 52.

The third major role is Raoul Max Trujillo as Running Dog, Britt’s Kiowa compadre. The former soldier, ski instructor, dancer, and choreographer, whose ethnic background includes many Indian tribes, Moor, and Sephardic Jew, has had a fine acting career since Black Fox. In addition to starring for several years in the Mayans M.C. series, he’s appeared in several important Westerns and Western-adjacent films, including Into the West for producer Steven Spielberg, Terrence Malick’s The New World, and Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto.

With the obvious audience acceptance of ethnically diverse Western stories like that of Bass Reeves, and the Osage characters in Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon, filmmakers have an unprecedented opportunity to rejuvenate Western films with a wide array of previously untold stories.

About Henry C. Parke

Henry’s new book, The Greatest Westerns Ever Made, and the People Who Made Them, published by TwoDot, is now available. The Brooklyn-born, L.A.-based writer has contributed articles to the INSP blog since 2016, been Film Editor for True West since 2015, and has written Henry’s “Western Round-up,” the online report on Western film production, since 2010. His screenwriting credits include Speedtrap (1977) and Double Cross (1994). He’s the first writer welcomed into the Western Writers of America for his work in electronic media. He’s done audio commentary on nearly thirty Spaghetti and domestic Westerns.