Western movies are an American favorite–we love cowboys and standoffs, high adventure, and the wildness of riding a horse through the desert. However, it can feel like Western movies are mostly white–after all, weren’t most of the settlers in the old west white?
This isn’t true. There were (and are) many black cowboys, and we’ve got tons of movies to prove it. The 1970s were a hugely popular time for black Westerns, and we are currently seeing a return of the genre. Here are some of the best black western movies of all time, from the 1960s until today.
The Harder They Fall (2021)
The newest black western is a look at the wild west from a new point of view. The Harder They Fall, a brand new Netflix original directed by Jeymes Samuel, is hugely popular and looks like the Renaissance of the black Western film.
The Harder They Fall is an excellent movie and garnering lots of attention right now. It’s the reason that many people are looking for more black westerns to watch–we want the thrill of the wild west with some diversity and cultural representation.
Starring Idris Elba, Regina King, and a star-studded cast, The Harder They Fall is one of the few Western movies that have an (almost) entirely black cast. If The Harder They Fall sounds like it’s right up your alley, you can head over to Netflix (or your local movie theater) to see the movie itself!
Harlem on the Prairie (1937)
One of the first all-black Western movies ever, Harlem on the Prairie, is a musical set in the old west. It’s known as one of the first movies to speak back to the traditional image of the wild west–wild, exciting, and settled entirely by white people.
Instead, Harlem on the Prairie showcases a town of black settlers struggling to get by and the helpful cowboy who stops by to help them with their troubles. In addition to the classic tropes of the Western genre, it also features musical numbers, songs, and lots of romance.
Harlem on the Prairie was vital to the black western genre. However, watching it now can seem kind of silly and outdated. Don’t worry–you don’t have to watch every movie on this list. If this piece of historical film interests you, you might have to do some digging to find it–it’s too old for a trailer and not available on any streaming service.
Black Rodeo (1972)
Although it’s not an action movie, Black Rodeo has a lot to offer the black western genre. It was a groundbreaking documentary in 1972, shedding light on the previously unknown culture of the black cowboy. Black Rodeo will ensure you can get a glimpse of some real-life black cowboy action.
Black Rodeo is a documentary and paved the way for some of the best black western movies out there. Because this movie showed America that black cowboys existed and were a legitimate force, Hollywood began to represent them in other movies (including Buck and the Preacher, the next on this list).
Buck and the Preacher (1972)
Buck and the Preacher was one of the first western movies to feature not one but two famous black actors. Sidney Portier and Harry Belafonte were the most famous black movie stars of the seventies, and putting them in the same movie was electrifying at the time.
This movie is a classic Western–it features wagon trains going west, a protective cowboy leader, and a con man disguised as a preacher. The premise sets up for some great action between the mostly black pioneers and settlers along the way. It’s an adventure that you won’t want to miss.
Posse is another little-known black cowboy classic, starring and directed by Mario von Peebles. It tells the story of a gang of Buffalo Soldiers hired to do a job. However, once they are betrayed and forced to a shoot-out to survive, everything comes into question.
This movie is about race, culture, and the ravages of war. However, it is also about the power of friendship and loyalty throughout hard times. And more than anything else, Posse is a movie of high adventure, shoot-outs, and classic Western action.
Posse is one of the more popular black western movies from the 1990s and deserves its place on this list. It’s an action-packed movie that’s fun to watch and highlights an important moment in U.S. history.
They Die By Dawn (2013)
They Die By Dawn is a little-known movie by the director of The Harder They Fall. Jeymes Samuel’s first movie shows his directing potential in this unique take on an outlaw shootout. If you’ve seen The Harder They Fall and loved it, you’ll likely enjoy this film (which also stars Idris Elba!).
The premise of They Die By Dawn is that four outlaws set up a time to have a four-way shootout. They agree that whoever wins will collect the bounty on the other three’s heads. However, it doesn’t go as planned, and violence, trickery, and mayhem follow. It’s a great Western and a great movie in general. If you are looking for something that will keep you on the edge of your seat, you might consider giving They Die By Dawn a try.
The Hateful Eight (2015)
One of the most famous modern Western directors is Quentin Tarantino. He has directed several Westerns, from Django Unchained to this movie, The Hateful Eight. While most of the characters in this are not black cowboys, The Hateful Eight often makes black Western lists because the main protagonist is black.
Samuel L. Jackson plays a cowboy bounty hunter in this action (and violence) filled movie. If you love Quentin Tarantino movies and haven’t seen The Hateful Eight, you need to watch it as soon as possible. However, know that Tarantino is famous for using a lot of gratuitous violence because this film won’t hold back on that signature style.
Lola Colt/black Tigress (1967)
Either called Lola Colt or black Tigress (depending on which country it was released in), this Spaghetti Western is as groundbreaking as it is problematic. The trailer isn’t available, but the entire movie is on YouTube! Let’s start with the groundbreaking part.
Lola Falana, a black performer and actress, was the first black female action star to be given her movie (let alone a Western). If you want to watch her playing the part of a classic Western heroine and busting some white cowboys up, prepare yourself for some serious Lola action.
However, there are also problematic stereotypes in this movie of Lola and others. She is objectified as a woman, as a black woman, and the portrayal of Native Americans isn’t great either. For the period, this movie was groundbreaking. If you’re willing to overlook the negatives, it’s worth a watch.
Blazing Saddles (1974)
Many Westerns are epic historical films to be taken very seriously. Blazing Saddles, on the other hand, is a ragingly funny historical satire. Mel Brooks’ classic Western comedy uses humor to speak to the realities of racism in the wild West and does an excellent job.
If you haven’t seen this movie, prepare yourself. It’s funny, but it’s also raucous and can be disturbing at times. Mel Brooks has a very odd sense of humor that not everyone enjoys. Gene Wilder and Cleavon Little star. Cleavon Little becomes the first black sheriff of an all-white town (and you can imagine how that goes).
If you like the action of the wild west but are looking for something a little more quirky and less intense, Blazing Saddles is the hallmark of weird western movies.
Buffalo Soldiers (1997)
Buffalo Soldiers is an inspiring Western based on a true story. The Buffalo Soldiers were a platoon of all-black soldiers after the Civil War. They were sent to guard the western territories and encountered hardships from nature and the outlaws in the west. This movie tells their story.
Buffalo Soldiers stars Danny Glover and is a moving look at post-Civil War America. It’s a great historical film, drama, and Western adventure movie. With a real-life glimpse into the life of a newly freed soldier, Buffalo Soldiers is an excellent movie and a great way to learn about history. This is a film that is great for both the western fanatic and the history buff.
Hell on the Border (2019)
Another new black western, Hell on the Border follows the story of a deputy sheriff chasing a wanted outlaw. However, the sheriff is a formerly enslaved black man and the outlaw is white. This flips the trope of many films and puts an interesting spin on a classic Western archetype.
The journey from an enslaved person to a deputy officer is based on a true story. Hell on the Border is one of several on this list that is based on the realities of life, and they offer the audience a unique perspective on this specific historical era.
The movie didn’t get great reviews when it first came out, mostly because it had a low budget and struggled at the box office. However, if you love movies that are based on true stories, inspiring Westerns, and seeing justice served, you’ll like Hell on the Border.
Joshua is another 1976 classic film that is based on a novel. This movie is a milestone in the history of black Western films, setting up Joshua as an anti-hero bent on revenge after returning from war to find his mother murdered.
Joshua is an intriguing movie but is cited as an early example of blaxploitation–the use of black actors to portray negative social stereotypes. Although Joshua does break the law, he does it to avenge his mother’s death. Many films with white characters do the same thing with impunity.
This movie is an early milestone in black Western films–instead of making the black character a side character, he is the main character and the audience roots for him. Even though there are traces of blaxploitation throughout the movie, it’s worth a watch if you want a complete history of black westerns in America.
Even though Rosewood is set in Rosewood, Florida, it has many elements of a classic Western film. The bad guys are coming in to storm the town and kill the innocents, and just a few brave souls are willing to stand up to them. The director, John Singleton, was one of the most iconic black directors and focused on revealing historical truths.
Rosewood is based on the true story of the tragic Rosewood massacre of 1923. The themes in this movie are heavy and it can be upsetting. However, it’s a story of triumph during the tragedy. Without a doubt, Rosewood is a black classic and belongs on this list.
Sweet Country (2018)
Sweet Country is a Western, but it’s set in the Northern Territory of Australia. Instead of African American black cowboys, the main characters are aboriginal Australians. The Aboriginal farmhand, played by Hamilton Morris, shoots a (white) farmer in self-defense. He then must run away from the vengeful posse of townspeople who come after him.
This movie fills many of the boxes on this list–it’s an adventure and action-filled plot, has many Western film archetypes, and is set in a dry and dusty land. However, it doesn’t reflect the black American Western experience. As long as you know that going in, you will probably love this movie!
Take a Hard Ride (1975)
Some westerns focus on outlaws trying to escape the crooked law. Others are about sheriffs trying to keep the (not-crooked) law. Take a Hard Ride, however, falls in between these two genres and is just about an ordinary guy trying to do the right thing.
This movie is a spaghetti Western, meaning that it was filmed in Italy and follows a very stereotypical style of western film. However, many of America’s favorite western movies are spaghetti westerns, so don’t knock it until you try it! What makes this even more special is that it stars several black actors (in the 1970s, no less!).
Take a Hard Ride focuses on a farmhand whose boss dies unexpectedly. He takes the boss’s fortune to the widow but must cross a treacherous desert filled with bandits, outlaws, crooked sheriffs, and racist townspeople. It’s a great story about endurance in the face of danger.
Sergeant Rutledge (1960)
In most classic Westerns, any black character’s presence must be explained somehow. They are often treated as side characters or backups instead of the main character. However, Sergeant Rutledge is a different story.
This movie is incredibly unique. Not only did it treat racism in the wild west with frankness and openness, but it also cast a black man as the main character and portrayed him well. For 1960, this is an incredible feat. Sergeant Rutledge is an older movie, so some of the portrayals (even of Rutledge himself) are outdated and could be offensive.
However, the movie is a huge part of black western history and an enormous step forward for Hollywood in general. Film critics still reference it as one of the most honest portrayals of racism in the old West, and it remains an enticing story and movie.
Django Unchained (2012)
One of the more controversial movies on this list, Django Unchained is a huge blockbuster directed by Quentin Tarantino. It stars Jamie Foxx as a former enslaved person who vows revenge on his past master. Django Unchained tops most lists of black Westerns.
Although this is an excellently made movie, it’s extremely violent and contains over one hundred racial slurs. This has drawn controversy from critics and fans, who say that the extremism in the movie wasn’t always necessary. However, it’s a very popular movie and has a great depiction of black liberation, revenge, and classic cowboy action.
Django Unchained was nominated for several Oscars and won one. It’s an incredible movie, but if you aren’t ready for the racial slurs and extreme violence, don’t watch it! There are plenty of other excellent black westerns to watch.
Brothers in Arms (2005)
Brothers in Arms is an oft-overlooked black western starring Antwon Tanner and Gabriel Casseus as outlaw brothers. They are wanted by the law but decide to do one last job: rob the corrupt bank owner of a small New Mexico town.
It’s a classic Western story, exemplified by shootouts, standoffs, and the outlaws standing up to the corrupt businessmen. It’s an older movie and wasn’t well-received, but has some excellent gunfights and action moments throughout.
Concrete Cowboy (2021)
A different take on the black cowboy movie, Concrete Cowboy tells the true story of the Fletcher Street Riders, a community of black cowboys in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. While this movie is the farthest east on the list, it fulfills all the basic requirements: horses, campfire stories, lessons learned, and of course, black cowboys.
Starring Idris Elba and Caleb McLaughlin, it’s a heartwarming tale of a community in the toughest of times. Are you wondering where you can go to see this film, you can watch can go Netflix and stream the entire movie. It isn’t set in the west, but it captures the spirit of black cowboys.
Best Black Western Movies Ever, Final Thoughts
In a genre where African Americans are generally underrepresented or poorly represented, these films shine as positive moments in black western history. Whether they are comedic satires or epic adventures, the best black western movies are just a taste of what’s yet to come–I can’t wait to see what’s next!