Why It Took David Oyelowo 10 Years to Make ‘Lawmen: Bass Reeves’

TheWrap Magazine: The actor faced excuse after excuse from reluctant studios until the success of “Yellowstone” helped pave the way for his western

David Oyelowo Bass Reeves
Paramount+

David Oyelowo had been trying to get a version of “Lawmen: Bass Reeves” made for 10 years.

The project about the real-life Black peace officer who worked the U.S. “Indian Territory” in the 1880s and was the likely inspiration for the Lone Ranger came to Oyelowo in 2013 via producer David Permut (Hacksaw Ridge). “I didn’t know anything about Reeves as a historical figure or any of the amazing exploits he had done,” Oyelowo said. If he had known about Reeves as a kid, he’s sure that he would have been “obsessed” with the lawman, and he figured that everyone would have been just as enthusiastic.

“I naively thought, Oh, this is a no-brainer, they are going to be begging us to make this show,” Oyelowo said, unaware that Morgan Freeman had been trying to get the project made for more than 20 years. (He only learned about Freeman’s attempts after launching his own.) Oyelowo and Permut went out with the project in 2015, expecting “quite the robust reception.” They were turned down.

“Everyone said, ‘We’re not doing it because no one’s doing westerns.’ We waited another two years and went out again and they said, ‘We’re not doing Westerns because everyone’s doing westerns.’ And then you go, ‘OK, this is clearly one of those convenient ways to pass on something you just inherently, for whatever reason, don’t see value in.’”

Bass-Reeves
David Oyelowo as Bass Reeves and Shea Whigham as George Reeves in “Lawmen: Bass Reeves” (Emerson Miller/Paramount+)

The classically trained British actor had been down this road before with Ava DuVernay’s 2014 film “Selma,” in which, after a “circuitous and protracted path to production,” he played Martin Luther King, Jr. to great critical acclaim. “The only thing you can point to is racism, really — an inherent bias against something like this and its value,” he said. In meetings, when he brought up ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’ and other westerns that transcended genre, executives balked.

“For whatever reason, the moment you transpose those stories onto the Black experience, they are thought of as different,” he said. The pushback was hard to fight, he added, because it kept getting reframed: “It’s not global enough, it’s too expensive, David isn’t a big enough name.”

That changed with “Yellowstone,” the megahit western from Taylor Sheridan that begat an entire franchise for Paramount+. In 2021, Sheridan signed on to executive produce “Bass Reeves,” and finally Paramount gave the green light. “In the 10 years since it first came into my world, the show has actually been made at the right scope and scale and production value,” Oyelowo said. “And that, I will say, was worth the wait.”

Viewers seem to agree. When the show premiered on Paramount+ in November 2023, “Bass Reeves” became the most-watched series premiere ever for Paramount+, with more than 7.5 million viewers globally. And Oyelowo may well earn his first Emmy nomination since his nod for the 2015 HBO movie “Nightingale.”

Oyelowo credits showrunner Chad Feehan for backing his vision of a story about Reeves and his family, which, he said, allowed them to create a “western that isn’t just for western lovers.” Over eight episodes, we watch Reeves go from a slave drafted into the Confederacy to a free, respected lawman who is on the trail of a cannibalistic serial killer and slave catcher known as Mr. Sundown. Meanwhile, his wife and children are dealing with their own injustices at home. When he returns, they aren’t all that happy to see him. It doesn’t matter that he’s a pioneering lawman. At home, he’s just Dad, and sometimes Dad lets them down.

Lawmen Bass Reeves
David Oyelowo in “Lawmen: Bass Reeves”(Paramount+)

“Everyone can relate to the work-life balance being a challenging thing,” Oyelowo said. “And then you multiply that by 10 with a guy who’s doing a very dangerous job, who’s on the road a lot, and he’s constantly trying to get back to his wife and kids. That’s relatable to everyone.”

Oyelowo’s nuanced interpretation of that struggle — one he, as an actor away from his loved ones for long stretches, surely understands on a molecular level —is part of what makes the show so powerful. So does its sense of tenderness, a rarity in period depictions of Black people.

“So often in these narratives that center on Black people in our era, they are mostly about dehumanization, enslavement or brutalizing Black people, or lynching Black people or taking away their right to vote or whatever it may be. It’s a dehumanizing narrative,” Oyelowo said. “For me, it was very important that this is a humanizing narrative in every sense. We know that there was brutality around Black people, but where is the joy? Where is the love? Where is the aspirational quality? The family component, the love component, the humanization component—we’re all about doing that.”

After 10 years, does Oyelowo feel vindicated in his quest to get “Lawmen: Bass Reeves” made? “It’s incredibly validating, but it’s also galvanizing from a vigilance standpoint,” he said. “Because what tends to happen, when you have a success like this—we saw this with ‘Black Panther,’ for instance — it now becomes the reference point, which almost makes it anomalous. And [nervous studios say], ‘Ah, but that was a one-off.’ No, that audience is wanting and waiting for more.”

This story first appeared in the Limited Series issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine. Read more from the issue here.

Hoa Xuande The Sympathizer cover
Hoa Xuande photographed by Elizabeth Weinberg for TheWrap

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