Western-themed movies and media have historically been displayed from a single perspective. The archetypal cowboy movie features white men, pistol showdowns, and southern accents. However, this is a completely whitewashed viewpoint that muddles the true origin of cowboys, which really began in Mexico with
“vaqueros,” a word derived from “vaca,” the Spanish word for cow.
Vaqueros worked for Spaniards in the 16th century, herding animals and taking care of livestock and ranches. In the early 1700s, vaquero culture started to move in the direction of what are now the states of Texas and New Mexico, but it wasn’t until the early 1800s that white colonists in the area started to adopt vaquero culture. In the 1800s, it continued to expand further and became more widely embraced; soon, African Americans, European immigrants, and Indigenous people began to identify as cowboys.
Decades later, the excitement of the Western lifestyle caught the eye of the entertainment business. The first Western-style short film was made in 1903, in New Jersey, and was called The Great Train Robbery. This film set the foundation for the genre of Westerns, marked by iconic gun showdowns. Cowboy movies were also well liked by filmmakers because of their low budgets.
When Hollywood took over the movie scene, the lead savior role was reserved for white people. If people of color were even in the film, their roles were always degrading and stereotypical. Not only was this phenomenon racist, but also historically inaccurate: in the 19th century, nearly 25 to 30 percent of cowboys were Black. However, films like The Lone Ranger perpetuated this whiteness, focusing on white characters and highlighting few people of color throughout its two and a half hours. Ironically, the lead role was speculated to have been inspired by Marshal Bass Reeves, the first Black deputy west of the Mississippi River and a former slave.
At long last, the film industry is making movies that reflect the true diversity of cowboys. Concrete Cowboy, released in 2020, dives into the lives of Black cowboys, focusing on the unity of such a community and the trust shared with animals. The film also touches on the idea that there exist different cultural practices to being a cowboy. The Harder They Fall, released in 2021, takes a more ruthless, action-packed approach by showing the cowboy lifestyle as a means for survival. It too features a mostly Black cast.
Instead of glorifying the white cowboy as the sole representative for this culture, we must celebrate the true history of cowboys. More than just unchangeable characters in movies, cowboys are a real, diverse, and complex group of people.