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At the Movies: ‘Posse’

May 13, 1993 GMT

Undated (AP) _ The many contributions of the black cowboy to the development of the American West long have been overlooked by textbooks and classrooms. Hollywood, too, chose to depict the American frontier as a fortress of white manhood.

But millions of blacks crossed the Mississippi and settled in the West before and after the Civil War. They were cavalrymen, scouts, rodeo riders, outlaws, gamblers and real cowboy heroes, such as Nat Love, Ben Hodges and Bill Pickett and the famous Buffalo Soldiers. Black women, too, tamed the West - Stagecoach Mary was one such adventuress.

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So the good news is that we now have a ″black″ Western. Mario Van Peebles’ ″Posse″ is a rootin’, tootin’ shoot-’em-up, packed with a lot of punch and a wagonload of good intentions.

But the bad news is that the movie is strapped with a tiresome, badly written script. So ″Posse,″ which could have been a moving and gripping tribute to black Western heroes - and a testament against bigotry and injustice - ends up with laughs in all the wrong places.

Unfortunately, Van Peebles, who did well in directing segments of his TV series ″Sonny Spoon,″ TV’s ″Wise Guy″ and the feature ″New Jack City,″ relied on the writing abilities of two novices, Sy Richardson, an actor making his screenwriting debut with ″Posse,″ and Dario Scarpadane, also making his debut.

Message to Mario: It’s not too late to rewrite the silly stuff you now have on screen and dub, dub, dub. You might have that spaghetti-Western look with mouths out of synch with words. But, hey, look what it did for Clint.

″Posse,″ like many old-fashioned Westerns, is a revenge movie with two sets of truly evil bad guys.

The action starts in the Spanish-American War, where Jesse Lee (Van Peebles), a sharpshooter and infantryman, outsmarts the corrupt Col. Graham (Billy Zane) by making off with a booty of gold and weapons.

So Jesse and crew, pursued by Graham and his hired killers, make it back to America, where Jesse proceeds on a personal crusade to avenge the Ku Klux Klan’s murder of his father, a minister who founded a free community of black property owners.

With Jesse are Weezie (Charles Lane), a fast-talking nerd of a guy with a hero’s heart; Father Time (Big Daddy Kane), a slick card shark; Obobo (Tiny Lister), a muscle man with a heart of gold; Angel (Tone Loc); and Little J (Stephen Baldwin), a white hustler and outlaw.

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One by one, Jesse picks off the guys who had slaughtered his father and finally makes it back to Freemanville, the community put together by former slaves. Freemanville is threatened by the evil Sheriff Bates (Richard Jordan), a Klan member who wants to rid the West of blacks and take over their property because the railroad is moving West.

There is lots of fighting and mucho pyrotechnics starring the flashing pistols of Jesse Lee and friends and the bad guys’ Gatling gun, the 19th century’s answer to the Uzi.

Lane, who always is enjoyable in a frenzied sort of way, gives a noteworthy performance, as does Zane, with his toothy, evil arrogance.

Van Peebles has a keen eye for certain details, though too many nuances are modern-day and thus a distraction. We might be able to accept Big Daddy Kane’s earring (after all, Mexicans and Indians wore earrings at that time), but a contemporary R&B song, badly sung by a dance-hall babe, just doesn’t fly. It is a terrible moment in the movie.

In contrast, there are wonderful cameos by Melvin Van Peebles, Paul Bartel, Aaron Neville and Isaac Hayes. Woody Strode, one of the few black actors ever to appear in Hollywood Westerns, including a lead role in John Ford’s ″Sergeant Rutledge,″ appears in ″Posse″ as the narrator.

Peter Menzies Jr. provides beautiful photography.

Preston Holmes and Jim Steele produced The Gramercy Pictures release, with Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner as executive producers, and Paul Webster and Bill Fishman as co-executive producers.

″Posse″ is rated R for violence, blood and sexual situations.

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Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:

G - General audiences. All ages admitted.

PG - Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.

PG-13 - Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.

R - Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.

NC-17 - No one under 17 admitted.