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Lawmen: Bass Reeves Review: David Oyelowo Takes Charge in Taylor Sheridan’s Latest Historical Western

In the world of TV franchises, Taylor Sheridan has come to dominate a large portion of the streaming space. Following the launch of Yellowstone, Sheridan is now the driving creative force behind multiple series for Paramount+, including Tulsa King and Mayor of Kingstown, and his original hit has spawned two prequels, 1883 and 1923. The former now has a companion anthology series, whose first season is devoted to telling the story of Bass Reeves, famous for being the first Black U.S. Marshal west of the Mississippi.

Lawmen: Bass Reeves begins two decades before 1883, with Bass (David Oyelowo) first seen on a horse in battle by the side of slaveowner George Reeves (Shea Whigham) in Arkansas. Treated in a moderately more civilized manner than most enslaved people, Bass is confronted by those in chains, who tell him that he’s fighting for the wrong side. Determined to learn to read so that he can get to know the Bible, Bass soon finds a way to freedom and unexpectedly enters law enforcement, thanks in large part to his ability to communicate with neighboring Native American communities and the fact that they likely won’t perceive him as a threat.

David Oyelowo, Shea Whigham in Lawmen: Bass Reeves (Emerson Miller/Paramount+)

The first of the two episodes that will premiere together is heavily expository, introducing Bass as he discovers his place in the world. He’s a soft-spoken man who doesn’t often push the boundaries that have been set for those who look like him, yet he’s also keenly intelligent and very observant. He doesn’t like being cheated, and one such instance brings out a rage in him that is terrifying to behold, indicative of what he might do if the balance of power were ever to shift in his time and, more importantly, if he felt someone truly deserved his wrath.

In the three episodes screened ahead of release for press, this series – which will run eight episodes in its first season – is in no rush to get anywhere. That’s not an issue since the story is legitimately interesting, and its slow-burn pacing allows for the introduction of characters who might not stick around for long but who feel as if they’re just as central as Bass due to the show’s ability to focus on them for an hour. It’s also crucial since, unlike much of Sheridan’s previous work, this is largely a one-man show, with Bass as the undisputed star and most other players appearing in a recurring capacity.

If there’s anyone up for the task of becoming Bass, it’s the actor, whose Oscar snub may well be one of the most egregious in history. Oyelowo delivered a towering performance as Martin Luther King Jr in Selma, only to be ignored by Oscar voters, and he has demonstrated a reliable commitment to his craft in the years since. Attentive TV audiences have seen him recently in two very different series, The Girl Before and Silo, and this project demands something entirely new from him. Moderating Bass’ disdain for those who talk down to him is among his best traits, and Oyelowo nails the careful balance between calculating and arrogant that allows him to survive and enter a position of authority in an era entirely uninterested in giving someone like him that kind of power.

Oyelowo, Lauren E. Banks in Lawmen: Bass Reeves (Emerson Miller/Paramount+)

Alongside Oyelowo are familiar faces, including Dennis Quaid in the role of a trigger-happy marshal that seems tailor-made for him, and Donald Sutherland, still going strong at eighty-eight years old, as a brutal judge. Lauren E. Banks and Forrest Goodluck are standouts as the two people who might best understand Bass, and the show’s first three episodes make excellent use of guest stars like the always terrific Whigham, Paula Malcomson, Lonnie Chavis, and Garrett Hedlund.

It’s no surprise that Sheridan’s latest outing has attracted such top talent, as if 1923 starring film legends Harrison Ford and Helen Mirren, wasn’t indicative enough of the draw of this sprawling storyteller. Previous Emmy nominee Oyelowo, cited back in 2015 for starring in and producing the TV movie Nightingale, may help Sheridan finally earn some recognition from the TV academy. While his other projects have earned considerable buzz, critical acclaim, and fan support, he still hasn’t yet achieved any above-the-line mentions. Perhaps the anthology setup of this series, which will look at a new protagonist in a planned second season, can propel it on a favorable awards trajectory similar to past series like American Crime Story, Feud, or Genius.

Whatever accolades it does or doesn’t earn, Sheridan’s name alone is sure to entice Paramount+ subscribers and those itching for an old-fashioned Western that also happens to spotlight an important real-life figure from history. In a cultural moment where the idea of law enforcement has become increasingly contested and divisive, there’s something refreshing about the story of a man who is all about justice, doing what he can to level the playing field in an era of lawlessness and inequality. It’s hard not to get behind that inspiring setup, especially with an actor like Oyelowo leading the way.

Grade: B+

The first two episodes of Lawmen: Bass Reeves will stream via Paramount+ on Sunday, Nov. 5.

Network: Paramount+
Principal Cast: David Oyelowo, Lauren E. Banks, Demi Singleton, Forrest Goodluck, Barry Pepper, Donald Sutherland and Dennis Quaid
Showrunner: Chad Feehan
Directors: Christina Alexandra Voros, Damian Marcano
Writers: Chad Feehan, Terence Anthony, Jacob Forman
Producers: Amanda Kay Price, Jacob Forman
DP: Christina Alexandra Voros, Dino Parks
Production Design: Wynn Thomas
Costume Design: 
Isis Mussenden
Editor: 
Christopher Gay
Score: 
Chanda Dancy

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