Posted on 15 December 2009 by Rodney
By Stan Armstrong
I saw a recent commercial that took place in an office. Not only was the boss a successful African-American businessman, he was portrayed as mega-successful, almost like a Black Trump. These are clearly the days of Obama – and I’m not mocking progress, because you never would have seen that kind of portrayal of black leadership in the past. Barriers really do fall in little ways.
John Ford, the legendary film director, knew this when he made Sergeant Rutledge (1960). Set in the Old West, it’s the tale of a Black U.S. Cavalry Officer on trial for a rape and murder he didn’t commit. In the dark days before Denzel, Samuel L. Jackson and Morgan Freeman, it was odd enough for a Hollywood movie to feature a black hero, let alone an African-American in a position of leadership, in this case, the titular Sergeant Rutledge.
Played by the great Woody Strode, Rutledge is a member of the U.S. 9th Cavalry, a Buffalo Soldier, accused on the basis of circumstantial evidence of raping a white girl and murdering his white superior officer. Rutledge only makes his innocence harder to prove when he deserts during the trial. A white lieutenant friend of Rutledge, played by Jeffrey Hunter, ultimately comes to his defense and Rutledge’s innocence is revealed during his court-martial. The crimes that Rutledge is accused of are, in fact, committed by a white man.
Is it symbolic? An honorable black man stands falsely accused of crimes against whites that were actually committed by whites? You bet. Think Sergeant Rutledge is only talking about the Old West when he declares: “It was all right for Mr. Lincoln to say we was free. But that ain’t so! Not yet! Maybe someday, but not yet!” That statement was intended to be about 1960 as much as it was 1880.
Director Ford made successful films in many genres,–The Grapes of Wrath, Mister Roberts, The Quiet Man–but is perhaps best remembered for his western films– Fort Apache, The Searchers, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. A recurring theme with Ford was men of honor versus a difficult world. Ford made perhaps the most iconic western of all time, 1939’s Stagecoach, which made Ford’s frequent collaborator, John Wayne, a star. In fact, it was over numerous Ford movies that Wayne perfected his on screen persona: the honorable, stoic hero. John Wayne’s character in Stagecoach, the Ringo Kid, is a true Ford creation. His sense of honor doesn’t seem to fit any longer in an Old West that is quickly modernizing so he returns to Texas at the end of the film. In a way, he represents the past.
And Ford chooses Sergeant Rutledge to represent the future. The struggle of the honorable man versus a less than honorable world isn’t limited to whites only. It’s a universal struggle. And by depicting a black man the same way he depicted other men, Ford was being an egalitarian. It may not seem like such a big deal now, but in 1960 Ford was coloring outside the lines, so to speak.
Woody Strode reflected on the pride of filling John Wayne’s shoes and the landmark achievement that Sergeant Rutledge was. Strode said he felt like he was carrying the spirit of the entire African-American race with him when he rode into Monument Valley as a black movie hero. And though fifty years have gone by since its production, I hear Rutledge’s words echoing in my head. Are we free the way, Mr. Lincoln told us?