Credit: Quiver Distribution
by Oliver Parker Featured Film Genre Views

Outlaw Posse — Mario Van Peebles

March 1, 2024

Despite being full of traditional Western tropes — including images of riding horseback through the dusty American plains and violent shootouts in dingy taverns — Mario Van Peebles’ latest film Outlaw Posse feels more inspired by folklore such as Robin Hood in how it constructs its central gang of outlaws: they disobey the traditional laws, established by white and colonial powers, but they live by their own code of helping the poor and those in need wherever possible. They crew is led by Chief (Mario Van Peebles), a wanted criminal who is taking refuge in a small Mexican town, preparing his return up north to Montana to collect hidden gold that he stashed away years prior.

Treasure-hunting a large sum of gold is a familiar arc for the Western, with money being the motivator for almost every cowboy and bandit that have populated the screen since the early 1900s. However, there’s a twist to that narrative shape in Outlaw Posse: the gold is actually money that Southern slave owners melted down into bars when they realized their wealth would disappear with the abolition of slavery. Chief plans to retrieve this gold and use most of it to provide reparations to the families and victims in the local area. Not only this, but the titular outlaw posse also helps return the land to the rightful owners, a mixed non-white family, from the racist land barons who oversee the area.

Of course, every Western needs a villain, and whilst Chief and his gang — which also includes his love interest Queenie (Amber Reign Smith) and Carson (John Carroll Lynch) — are not legally the good guys, they are the nominal protagonists for this revisionist take on the West. The film’s comically sadistic bad guy, then, comes in the form of Angel (William Mapother), a man who worked with Chief originally to stash the gold bars, only for the pair to soon after violently fall out, resulting in Chief cutting off Angel’s hand — replaced with a brass hand that can be detached and substituted with a variety of menacing weapons. Mapother gives an incredibly hammy performance — not necessarily a bad thing — and constantly dishes out cheesy one-liners while habitually insulting his subordinates.

He’s also obsessed with his own mythos, and following him everywhere he goes is a terrified journalist who is documenting his every action, the results of which Angel hopes to one day publish as a journal or series of articles declaring how great he is. Indeed, the notion of myth-making pervades the entirety of the Outlaw Posse; two of the group’s members pretend to be Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, even though they were recently gunned down, with one kid idolizing them despite their having held him at gunpoint. Van Peebles’ film aims to reconfigure the Western’s popular mythic figures by weaving real non-white legends into the film’s narrative, including as Stagecoach Mary (Whoopie Goldberg), the first African American postwoman, and  Hum Yow, the founder of the longest running Chinese restaurant in America.

Outlaw Posse offers another dimension than that between two old rivals battling it out over gold: Chief’s son Decker (played by Mandela Van Peebles), whom he has a distant relationship with, has his home attacked by Angel early on in the film. The big bad tells Decker that to save his wife he must track his father down so that Angel might be first to the gold. The detached father-son relationship add some juice to the film’s dramatic tension during this stretch, but Decker eventually joins his father’s posse (though that doesn’t stop the occasional argument Chief’s instinct for caring for the poor while failing to look after his son). This thread is admittedly never realized as dramatically or powerfully as it could have been, but there’s a genuine sense of melancholia in MVP’s portrayal of the world-weary Chief that instills the film with a surprising sense of pathos (aided by the chemistry of the real-life father-son performers).

More than a study of distant fathers, though, Outlaw Posse is predominantly a film about race relations in America: not just between colonial settlers and the Indigenous population, or between white slave owners and their free Black neighbors, but more broadly about the ways that solidarity amongst oppressed people is the only way to topple injurious power structures. In the film’s opening moments — a tense shootout in a nondescript bar — Chief protects a Native American from a corrupt sheriff who is hurling racial abuse at him; later on in the film, in return for helping him, the man’s father allows Chief to access the gold that sits on Native land. Van Peebles depicts the outlaw gang as understanding the role that a genuine and inclusive sense of community plays in morality.

But that doesn’t mean there are elements of the film that unfortunately fall flat. A scene in which Angel forces Decker’s wife, at gunpoint, to play Beethoven on the harp, while he cries at the music, highlights the film’s occasional and inorganic bursts of absurdity; even stranger is that he brings Decker’s wife along with him as he hunts down Chief, forcing her to play the violin whenever he demands it. These eccentricities clash with the film’s more grounded considerations and presentations, and while there’s no doubt these inclusions are intended to introduce a vein of humor, they unfortunately are more jarring than actually funny in execution. The film can also lose its way in its more action-oriented scenes: Van Peebles never demonstrates that he has a grasp on how to effectively shoot or edit the sequences, and they mostly feel disorientating due to their lack of coherent spatial geography, sapping them of tension and excitement.

In Outlaw Posse’s final moments, our hero does not walk alone into the sunset, and he isn’t cast out into the dust to wander either — instead, he joins a commune, one the group visited earlier in the film, where every race and religion live in perfect harmony and where the use of money has been completely eradicated. Which is to say, Van Peebles’ film is one primarily concerned with reconciliation: between fathers and sons, between the various peoples populating the American land. And there’s no denying that the director’s vision of the West speaks to our present moment: here, conservative Christian nationalism is defeated by a coalition of folks from different races and backgrounds violently fighting back against oppressive forces. This lightly radical framing helps cover some of the film’s formal sins, casting its low-budget aesthetic as more charming than not and keeping the proceedings solidly entertaining for undemanding viewers interested in the Western genre.

DIRECTOR: Mario Van Peebles;  CAST: Mario Van Peebles, William Mapother, Mandela Van Peebles, John Carroll Lynch;  DISTRIBUTOR: Quiver Distribution;  IN THEATERS: March 1;  RUNTIME: 1 hr. 48 min.