'Lawmen: Bass Reeves'

Source: Lauren Smith / Paramount+

‘Lawmen: Bass Reeves’

David Oyelowo had never heard of Bass Reeves when he was approached to star as the runaway slave who became the first Black US deputy marshal west of the Mississippi.

“I knew nothing,” admits Oyelowo over Zoom from Los Angeles, where he has lived for the past 17 years. “But a Google search alone told you this was a fascinating human being. I mean, every single place this guy went, the walls were closing in on him, whether it was historically, racially, in terms of the nature of the job he was doing. He had 11 kids. Everything about him was dramatic to me. It was one of those stories that almost wrote itself.”

This was back in 2014 and Oyelowo, hot off playing Martin Luther King Jr in Ava DuVernay’s Selma, signed on initially as an actor but would eventually become an executive producer of the limited series Lawmen: Bass Reeves. However, the Black-centred project did not prove to be an easy sell. “I think bias, a lot of the time, is subconscious and it is built on not having data or comps, or all these phrases we use partly as excuses for not making things that are slightly colouring outside the lines,” Oyelowo says. “First time we went out with it in 2015, by and large everyone said, ‘We’re not doing this because no-one is making westerns.’ It was deemed a dead genre.”

They tried again, two years later. “We went to meet a lot of the same people, some new ones and the refrain was, ‘We’re not doing this because everyone’s doing westerns.’ That’s typical of our business, it’s very fear-driven. But the real headscratcher was how potent the story was, how beloved this genre is, when there are a bunch of westerns fronted by white characters, and then you have something that feels fresh, feels special, feels historically resonant, and it’s not being embraced. Then the only place you can land is a prejudice against a Black protagonist, a Black-centred story. And those notions were very much rooted in, it’s not [a] global [story], it’s not going to be embraced by a wide audience, it’s too expensive in relation to its perceived reach. There were consistent doors being slammed in its face.”

Enter Taylor Sheridan, whose Paramount series Yellowstone and its assorted spin-offs had found huge success for the network and its streaming service Paramount+, and suddenly Lawmen: Bass Reeves found a home. “We were beneficiaries of the massive success of Yellowstone,” says Oyelowo, “the most undeniable example of the fact that there is an audience for a modern-day western, in the form of Yellowstone, or a good old-fashioned version of that story in [prequel] 1883. That became the moment where you could not only see the numbers, but the demographics of people engaging with it. That gave Paramount the confidence to spend a pretty penny, which was the thing I couldn’t have anticipated through the course of trying to get this made.”

While Sheridan is credited as executive producer on Bass Reeves, Oyelowo says he did not have any “on-the-ground participation”. Oyelowo adds: “What Taylor afforded us was the platform, his name. The show was showrun by Chad Feehan [Ray Donovan] and we had an incredibly wonderful, talented and diverse writers’ room. But it’s branding. Then it’s for us to deliver on that promise with the show.”


An eight-part limited series, Lawmen: Bass Reeves barely scratches the surface of the titular character’s incredible life, covering just 15 years, beginning with his spell as a Confederate soldier in the American Civil War, his escape from slavery into Indian Territory, now Kansas and Oklahoma, his failed attempts at farming, then, aged 37, his appointment as a US deputy marshal, a position he held for 32 years. He was also said to have inspired the Lone Ranger.

“One of the reasons I was very keen on making this was, I was almost making it for my six-year-old self,” admits Oyelowo. “Because I didn’t see cowboys who looked like me, much like I didn’t see superheroes who look like me. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t run around in my Spider-­Man suit or my Superman suit or with my cowboy hat.”

To play Bass required getting in shape. “I’ve been very fortunate to play a few historical characters and the thing I know to be true is that you go to them, you don’t bring them to you, and being a great horseman is not something that was part of my skillset. I spent over a year learning to ride in incredibly difficult terrain. I had to get physically strong because it was a six-month shoot in inclement weather, in Texas, doing a lot of action. And I couldn’t afford to get injured. It was an incredibly intense shoot, not least because of some unforeseen obstacles.”

First, there was the Writers Guild of America strike that began in May 2023 while they were still in production. “We lost our writing team about a month before we finished shooting.” Added to that, there was the looming threat of the

SAG-­AFTRA actors strike that was due to start in July. “We had to get the thing shot. There was no margin for error, other­wise we would have to down tools as actors as well. It was definitely challenging.”

Bright start

A Screen International Star of Tomorrow in 2005 alongside Robert Pattinson and Natalie Dormer, Oyelowo began his stage career in 1999 with the Royal Shakespeare Company before starring in the hit BBC TV series Spooks. Countless films and TV shows followed, including The Paperboy, Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes, Jack Reacher, Lincoln and Interstellar, but his performance in Selma took him to the next level.

That same year, Oyelowo alongside his actress-wife Jessica started Yoruba Saxon Productions, which has co-produced several films in which he has starred, including Amma Asante’s A United Kingdom. In 2021, they signed a first-look deal with Disney. More recently, Yoruba Saxon struck a first-look deal with Apple TV+ and is currently filming its debut series Government Cheese.

“I did Silo for them and had an amazing time,” notes Oyelowo. “[Apple] talked to me about wanting to tell stories that have global resonance. That’s a big focus of mine. I want to tell African stories, American stories, European stories, stories that are universal, but central to that is always going to be marginalised perspectives and characters.

Government Cheese is the beginning, but we have a number of films in development there, and a couple of TV shows.

“The great thing about Apple is they are very dedicated to original stories, stories that are not necessarily built on pre-existing IP that they control,” Oyelowo continues. “They’re looking for creatives and creators who can come in and build worlds, because they are a new platform trying to build a library. That is exciting on two levels. You’re building something new, and you get to build it with a company that is very engaged to make stuff, as opposed to just develop.

“These guys need product, and that suits me just fine.”