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Television

A New Series About Lawman Bass Reeves Tries to Separate Truth from Legend

Texas ties abound in Taylor Sheridan’s Lawmen: Bass Reeves, created by Fort Worth native Chad Feehan, which debuts this weekend.
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For actor David Oyelowo, playing Bass Reeves became a passion project. Paramount+

Growing up in Fort Worth, Chad Feehan thought he had been told the basics about Bass Reeves, the 19th century lawman and first Black deputy U.S. Marshal west of the Mississippi River. The more Feehan immersed himself into research as showrunner for the limited series Lawmen: Bass Reeves, he realized how little he actually knew.

Feehan (Ray Donovan) became inspired by series star David Oyelowo, who had been wanting to bring Reeves’ story to the screen for almost a decade. His vision finally gained traction thanks to Yellowstone creator and Texas native Taylor Sheridan, who introduced Oyelowo to Feehan.

“I learned a lot of things about Bass that I didn’t know,” Feehan said during the Austin Film Festival. “I learned where the myths converged with and separated from reality. I soon became obsessed.”

Thus began the creative partnership that steered the eight-episode series, which was filmed largely around Sheridan’s Bosque Ranch in Parker County, and begins streaming on Nov. 5 on Paramount+.

Before he became a respected officer in Texas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas — and the subject of various legends in subsequent decades — Reeves was forced into fighting for the Confederacy during the Civil War by Texas legislator and colonel George Reeves, whose family had enslaved him.

Later, Bass Reeves fled captivity during the war and took shelter with a Seminole tribe until being granted his freedom in 1865. He settled on a farm and started a family before transitioning into law enforcement, where he became a notorious crusader for justice.

Given the lack of concrete information available about Reeves’ life, any biopic treatment involves a mix of facts and speculation. Fort Worth author Sidney Thompson, who has written multiple historical fiction novels about Reeves, is a creative consultant.

“There are these seminal moments in Bass’s life that we used as pillars to lay the foundation for the narrative,” said Feehan, who wrote the pilot episode. “We were driven by themes we wanted to explore — triumph of the human spirit, universality of the human condition, and the weight of the badge. Once we established a lot of those moments and felt like the audience was really invested in the character, then we started building a more serialized narrative in the back half of the season.”

While certain elements and characters are fictionalized, the series creators were driven by historical authenticity.

“You felt very safe as a director, that the information on the page could be trusted,” said Christina Voros, who directed five of the eight episodes and who has also worked on Yellowstone and spinoff 1883. “When you’re doing a period piece, a real deal-breaker to their success is accuracy.”

Although the series is set about 150 years ago, its collaborators found contemporary resonance in some of the themes and lessons from Reeves’ courage and perseverance.

“The historical truth is very important. But they were able to write something that, without me knowing any of this history, I connected to as a human being,” said Trinidadian director Damian Marcano, who helmed three episodes. “It becomes so real. You can’t help but envision a 150-year-old version of yourself. It definitely moved me.”

Feehan said he and Oyelowo became emotional while filming a pivotal early sequence on a plantation that is still standing in Nacogdoches.

“We started crying for the same reason, finding our common humanity, and to be able to embrace each other and comfort each other, was something I didn’t expect,” Feehan said. “I wasn’t really expecting to find that brotherhood and sisterhood. I think it translates to the screen.”

The series strived to avoid exploiting the physical trauma inflicted on Reeves and instead focused on the psychological pain that drove his resilience and transformed his future, Feehan said.

“Justice was his guiding light. In order to understand why justice was so important to him, we felt like we had to see some injustice that he endured,” he said. “I hope we did it the right way.”

Author

Todd Jorgenson

Todd Jorgenson

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