The pop song was almost right. Based on recent news, the next few months and years could be all about that Bass Reeves. Fox News and the Discovery Channel plan separate documentaries this summer about the legendary U.S. Deputy Marshal. And now comes news that HBO has green lighted a mini-series based on the life of the former slave who would become a Marshal for U.S. Judge Isaac Parker.
Art Burton, author of “Black Gun, Silver Star: The Life and Legend of Frontier Marshal Bass Reeves,” and “Black, Red and Deadly: Black and Indian Gunfighters,” confirmed with The City Wire that award-winning actor Morgan Freeman and television actor James Pickens Jr., have convinced HBO to produce a mini-series on Reeves.
Deadline Hollywood and other entertainment media outlets first broke the news.
“The story of one of the least known heroes of the Old West, Deputy Marshal Bass Reeves, is finally headed to the screen. HBO has put in development an untitled event miniseries project, from Morgan Freeman and Lori McCreary’s Revelations Entertainment and Grey’s Anatomy co-star James Pickens, Jr.,” Deadline Hollywood noted in this May 18 report.
According to most reports, Reeves was the most feared Marshal of his time under U.S. Federal Judge Isaac C. Parker. Reeves was born a slave in Texas in 1838 and died in Muskogee, Okla., on Jan. 12, 1910.
Even though Reeves was an African-American and illiterate, he brought in more outlaws than anyone else, according to Burton’s, “Black Gun, Silver Star” book. He was able to memorize the warrants for every law breaker he was to arrest and bring to trial.
Reeves was an expert tracker and detective, both respected and hated, but mostly feared. Reeves was not the first African-American appointed to serve Judge Isaac C. Parker's federal court as a deputy U.S. Marshal, but he was the most famous Marshal in his day. He was the first African-American inducted into the Great Westerners Hall of the National Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City in 1992.
Burton said Tuesday that Hollywood first took an interest in the Reeves story in 1991 following the release of his “Black, Red and Deadly” book. Lou Gossett, Don Johnson, Freeman, Sinbad, and Maury Povich were just a few of the celebrities interested in the story.
“I was contacted by numerous agents, but they wouldn’t tell me who they were working for,” Burton said with a laugh during a phone interview from his home base in Chicago.
‘HERO FOR EVERYBODY’
Pickens contacted Burton shortly before the Bass Reeves statue was placed in downtown Fort Smith. He said Pickens partnered with Freeman in the effort to interest HBO in Reeves’ life story. Through Fox News, Bill O’Reilly will feature Reeves in a one-hour segment of the “Legends and Lies” series, Burton said. He also said the Discovery Network has planned a one-hour special on Reeves.
“It is kind of surreal. Even when they put the statue up, it was surreal, because when I started researching Bass, no one knew about him. I didn’t even know a lot about him,” Burton said. “He’s an American hero. This guy is a hero for everybody. This is someone, a story, we can all put our arms around.”
The recent buzz about Reeves – which Burton says reignited with the 2013 release of the Lone Ranger movie – has momentum behind it, Burton said, adding that he senses a broader level of interest in the slave turned lawman.
“This is like a rodeo, and we are in the chute. Once we kick that door and that chute opens, I think that Bass Reeves is going to take off. He’s going to be bigger or as big as anybody in western lore,” Burton told The City Wire. “I think Fort Smith needs to get ready for that. I don’t think I realized how big that this would get. … If you think about it, there is no lawman that you can compare to Bass.”
Burton estimated it could take two years or more before the series is aired. Burton said he helped with some of the screenwriting, and is open to being a production consultant if asked. As to Reeves’ portrayal, Burton has a simple request.
“The only thing I ask, is that they keep the man’s integrity intact. But I don’t think there will ever be a documentary, mini-series, or film that will capture who Bass Reeves really was. It was like that movie about Ali … it was a great movie, but you’re not going to get all of who Ali was in a movie,” Burton said.
Baridi Nkokheli, director of the Fort Smith Department of Sanitation and who is known for his portrayal of Reeves, said the attention on Reeves “has been a long time coming.” He noted that when the Reeves statue in downtown Fort Smith was unveiled in 2013, an agent for Pickens was at the event.
In April 2010 Nkokheli visited briefly with Freeman in Little Rock. Nkokheli, dressed as Reeves, used the time to update Freeman on the plans to build a Reeves statue and on how the Bass Reeves Legacy Initiative works with area schools and other groups to raise awareness about the Marshal. (See video below of that meeting.)
Nkokheli also has a hope for how Reeves is treated in the HBO series.
“I would hope that they would concentrate more on his accomplishments coming from the fact that he was born enslaved … and how he adapted and overcame all those handicaps because the country was still practicing slavery,” Nkokheli said. “I would hope they would emphasize that the human spirit can triumph.”
He is somewhat concerned that the HBO focus will be that Reeves was forced to arrest his own son, and may miss the point that an overwhelming majority of those he arrested were white, “and that it was rare in those days for a black man to be empowered to arrest white men.” However, Nkokheli said a mini-series could be better than a movie, “because it may give an audience more time to delve into the background of Bass Reeves.”
Burton is confident HBO will get it right.
“HBO is a premiere group. … He should get good treatment with HBO,” Burton said.
Burton also is not ruling out a movie.
“I actually think that will happen, that there will be a Bass Reeves movie for the theaters.”
MARSHALS MUSEUM TIMING
Depending on the progress of fundraising, opening of the U.S. Marshals Museum in downtown Fort Smith could coincide with the HBO series.
In January 2007, the U.S. Marshals Service selected Fort Smith as the site for the estimated 20,000-square-foot national museum. The museum is to be built on 15.9 acres along the Arkansas River that is being donated by the Robbie Westphal family.
The planned $53 million museum's construction is a three-phase project, starting first with site work before moving to building construction and finally design and installation of exhibits to be housed at the museum celebrating the United States' oldest law enforcement agency. A ceremonial groundbreaking was held in September 2014, and museum officials hope to have the facility open by late 2017.
Latest reports indicate that around $20 million in cash and in-kind has been raised to build and operate the museum.