You won't find a trace of cowboy-turned-movie-legend Bill Pickett during the airing of “Separate Cinema,” the monthlong festival of “race” films currently airing on the Turner Classic Movies cable network. More's the pity, because Pickett has achieved the type of mythical status that only disappearing acts can engender: No copies of the two feature films that he made for the Norman Film Manufacturing Co. in 1921 – The Bull-Dogger and The Crimson Skull – exist. All that sits in the Library of Congress vaults are several outtakes from the films (without Pickett) and a tantalizing 25-second clip of him performing rodeo tricks.
Bill Pickett wasn't an actor; he was a real-life cowboy. According to two of his biographers, he was born in 1870 in rural Texas. With his brothers, he worked as a ranch hand and ran a horse-breaking business outside Austin. Part African-American and part Indian, Pickett flourished at a time when the frontier was populated by many black cowboys.
He achieved fame by inventing an outrageous move known as “bulldogging.” Pickett would ride alongside a steer, jump onto its shoulders and dig his feet into the ground. Once the steer slowed, he would twist its head and bite down on the steer's upper lip or nose. He would then raise his arms and throw himself backward to bring down the steer. (This move is now banned in rodeos; the modern-day equivalent is steer wrestling – without the biting.)
Nobody can pinpoint the first time Pickett performed this stunt; the best guess is around 1885. But the daredevil takedown, which Pickett claims he picked up by watching his dogs corral cattle, soon attracted considerable attention. He began appearing in local fairs in and around Texas before being hired around 1905 by the Miller Brothers. He worked as a hired hand at the Millers' 101 Ranch in Boley, Oklahoma, and toured with their 101 Ranch Wild West Show.
The Miller Ranch was no ordinary setup. According to one published account, 200 men worked to maintain the 100,000-acre spread. The Wild West Show toured the world and attracted serious talent. Cowboy and future movie star Tom Mix worked there – he and Pickett became friends – as did Will Rogers, who perfected his rope tricks while working for the Millers. But “The Dusky Demon,” as Pickett was billed, was a star in his own right. Wrote one biographer of his act: “When old Bill Pickett tied onto a runaway steer's nose with his teeth and busted him against the ground the crowd reared up on its hind legs screaming. Right down to the last puff of dust kicked up in the arena, that show was wilder than a wolf.”
Pickett's film career happened because of the burgeoning popularity of race films, which debuted shortly after the release of D.W. Griffith's Civil War epic, The Birth of a Nation, in 1916. Scholars estimate 500 of these independently made films (many of them silents) were produced through 1950; they were shown exclusively to African-American audiences in segregated theaters. “The pervading psychology of the times was that, basically, African-Americans wanted to be like whites and should desire the same sort of things white people had,” says Dr. Todd Boyd, professor at USC's School of Cinema-Television and author of Am I Black Enough for You? “Race films represented this black version of what would normally be considered whitelike behavior.”
Oscar Micheaux was, and still is, recognized as the leading director-producer-distributor of race films, in part because of his prodigious output, in part because he so studiously copied each Hollywood genre. But smaller operators, such as Richard Norman, a white filmmaker who operated out of Jacksonville, Florida, were able to find a profitable niche. Norman made his first all-black feature in 1921, a film called Green Eyed Monster. When he saw how popular the Westerns that Hollywood was churning out had become, he decided to make a black Western.
Phyllis Klotman, the director of the Black Film Center/Archive at Indiana University, notes that Norman went to the 101 Ranch with the intention of using Pickett as his leading man. But Norman thought that Pickett, then in his 50s, wasn't photogenic enough to be the star. So he shot The Bull-Dogger using Pickett's rodeo skills as a backdrop, while accumulating enough footage to use later in The Crimson Skull. Both films starred Anita Bush, an actress from the famed Lafayette Players in Harlem, and Steve “Peg” Reynolds, a one-legged actor.
According to Norman scholars, both The Bull-Dogger and The Crimson Skull were uncomplicated morality plays, with – surprise – good winning over evil. The importance of these films wasn't in their feeble plotlines but rather in their showcasing of Pickett and other black cowboys in heroic roles. (In the late 1930s, the light-skinned Herb Jefferies would star as a singing cowboy in such films as Harlem Rides the Range and Harlem on the Prairie.)
Although modern audiences are unable to see Pickett's films, the importance of race Westerns cannot be overestimated. With the exception of a handful of features – Sergeant Rutledge; Duel at Diablo; The Red, White and Black; The Legend of Nigger Charlie; Buck and the Preacher; Blazing Saddles; Unforgiven; and Posse, to name most of the well-known titles – Hollywood has historically ignored the contributions of African-Americans (and other minorities) on the frontier. Indeed, the quintessential American genre about the quintessential American experience has always been about maintaining the myth that the prairie was shaded one color only.
Norman went on to make six feature films in total. He then stayed in the business, buying and distributing race films (including Micheaux's work) and other black-oriented fare (such as reels of Joe Louis and Henry Armstrong fights). Pickett continued to tour and work until his death, at age 62, in 1932. By the time of his death he was said to have “dogged” more than 6,000 animals; he died at the ranch after an altercation with a bucking horse.
Pickett was all but forgotten after his death, though he has slowly received his props as biographers have begun to unearth his story. In 1971, he was inducted into the Rodeo Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City, the first African-American so honored. In 1993, the U.S. Postal Service decided to pay tribute by producing a stamp of Pickett for their “Legends of the West” series. It was a nice idea – except that the picture they selected was of Bill's younger brother, Ben. Thankfully, the poster from The Bull-Dogger – with Pickett, his hat tilted back, looking full of piss and vinegar – has survived.
Today, Pickett's legend endures mainly through the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo. Lu Vason, a Denver-based music promoter, founded the all-black tour in 1984 after noticing how few black cowboys compete for the Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association, the big-time rodeo circuit. The Bill Pickett makes 10 stops annually and includes events for both men and women. (The invitational will be at the Los Angeles Equestrian Center in Burbank this weekend.)
Like Pickett himself, the show is about busting stereotypes. “The Bill Pickett Invitational is about exposing and eliminating the myth that there were no blacks involved in the development of the West,” says Vason. “In the West, there were blacks involved, and yet they're left out of the folklore of America. Jesse James had two blacks riding with him, but nobody knows about that.”
And, after years of excluding African-American cowboys in the movies, Hollywood now seems to be interested in filming the Bill Pickett story. Harry Cannon, an independent producer and the president of Sherman Oaks-based Ryanmac Productions, has readied a script about Pickett's life (he says he'd like Delroy Lindo to play the cowboy). All Cannon is waiting for is the money. “Bill Pickett's life was so incredible. The trouble,” says Cannon, “is how do you squeeze it down to two hours?”