David Oyelowo in 'Lawmen: Bass Reeves'
Emerson Miller/Paramount+

'Lawmen: Bass Reeves' Star David Oyelowo on the Weight of the Badge: 'We Felt It, Big Time' [Interview]

The Golden Globe nominee talks embodying an icon.

The story of Bass Reeves is astonishing, even at the most basic, Wikipedia level: He escaped slavery to become the first Black Deputy U.S. Marshal west of the Mississippi. For David Oyelowo, star of the new Paramount+ series "Lawmen: Bass Reeves," that irony is part of what made telling the Bass Reeves story so urgent.

"You could argue that he could be a vengeful man. He could be someone who deemed justice to be the likes of the injustice that he had been subjected to," Oyelowo tells Wide Open Country. "And yet, he somehow managed to find the humanity, the compassion, the agency, the patriotism, to still go out and do what he did to, I mean, an unthinkable degree for 32 years."

"Lawmen: Bass Reeves," created by Chad Feehan ("Ray Donovan") and executive produced by "Yellowstone" creator Taylor Sheridan, is the first cinematic anything dedicated to Bass Reeves' life and remarkable career. It took David Oyelowo, who also serves as an executive producer on the series, nearly a decade to get it made due to the vagaries (and, likely, biases) of the industry. Oyelowo initially took it to studios before "Yellowstone," when the Western genre was considered dead. The Dutton family made cowboys de rigueur, and "Bass Reeves" became the first project within the Sheridan TV stable to feature a real-life Old West figure. 

Over the course of eight episodes, "Lawmen: Bass Reeves" paints an epic portrait of Reeves' life before and after the Civil War. The series mixes traditional biopic forms (like time-jumps) with the adventure-of-the-week sensibility of a serialized Western. Reeves is said to have arrested over 3,000 criminals in his decades patrolling what was known as Indian Territory — all without ever being seriously wounded. 

David Oyelowo in 'Lawmen: Bass Reeves'

Emerson Miller/Paramount+

The man's stats rival those of any made-up superhero. But Oyelowo and the series creators chose to mold the story around Reeves' family. Rising star Lauren E. Banks ("City on a Hill") takes second billing as Reeves' indomitable wife, Jennie. They were married for 30 years, and history records that they had between 10 and 11 children.

"If you have such a high-pressure job, a job that is so demanding, that's going to have its impact," Oyelowo says. "That's going to take a toll on your family. And so we deliberately frame the story around this couple who are constantly trying to find a path back to each other."

Of course, Oyelowo has a knack for finding intimate ways into iconic figures. The Nigerian-born, British actor played Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Ava DuVernay's "Selma" (2014) — a role which earned him a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor. 

"The humanization of these individuals, the ability to tell their story beyond what you could see in a documentary, is the only reason to make them," he says of his approach to biographical dramas. "Also telling a story that feels resonant with the now. Whether it was 'Selma' or 'A United Kingdom,' the love, the family, the beating heart of those characters is what I was truly interested in because I think that's what's relatable."

"Jumping on a horse, going after the bad guys is not something that everyone can relate to," he adds. 

'Lawmen: Bass Reeves' behind the scenes photo of David Oyelowo


And yet, there's plenty of Western fare to chew on in "Lawmen: Bass Reeves." Saloon shootouts and brawls in dusty desert towns give way to stunning landscape shots. (Christina Alexandra Voros, who received an Emmy nomination for her cinematography on "1883," directs five episodes of the series.) In May 2022, Denim Richards posted a photo of Oyelowo and the "Yellowstone" cast on horseback at Taylor Sheridan's Bosque Ranch, where "Bass Reeves" was partly filmed.

"Because of 'Yellowstone' and '1883' and '1923,' there's an incredible infrastructure that has been built now not just of locations, but of personnel who really know how to do this. All those horses, all those carriages, all those period costumes and weaponry and artifacts — it's a pretty extraordinary machine," Oyelowo says.

"And to be afforded all those tools with this story that centers a Black man and a Black family—you know, a story the likes of which we've rarely seen with this scope and scale—was a really wonderful thing to be around."

When speaking of the scope of the series, Oyelowo cites a line that recurs throughout the show: "The weight of the badge." It signifies the sacrifices people like Bass Reeves made in pursuit of justice at formative points in U.S. history. He refers to post-Civil War Reconstruction as a "red-hot eye of this notion of America being an experiment." 

"The weight of the incredibly challenging circumstances under which this country was being formed — the price Native Americans had to pay for that, the price Africans had to pay for that, the price the country in general had to pay for that through the Civil War... To have this man, at the center of this narrative, through whom all of those things are flowing, you feel it. It's a spirit. You know, shooting on an actual plantation that had housed 80 enslaved people back in the day. We felt it, big time."

New episodes of "Lawmen: Bass Reeves" premiere Sundays on Paramount+.

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