Western culture is known to be definitively American, and therefore, essential to American history and culture. It is characterized by ruthless cowboys adorned with signature boots with spurs, hats, ropes and guns while they ride their horses through the sunset. It is a picture most people can envision simply based on the many notable works of cowboy media. However, the exclusion of Black cowboys is as present as ever, similar to many other aspects of American history. So much so that, Katie Nodjimbadem wrote for Smithsonian Magazine, “And though African-American cowboys don’t play a part in the popular narrative, historians estimate that one in four cowboys were black.” This means that for every typical cowboy movie that centers a white protagonist, there should be just as much Black cowboy representation.

The history behind Black cowboys is exciting and empowering. These cowboys often escaped slavery and had to survive the tough, Western lifestyle while also being challenged by racism and injustice. It is a story that deserves to be told, and fortunately is through lesser-known movies, often referred to as Blaxploitation Western films. Blaxploitation films emerged in the 1970s and typically featured predominantly Black casts, often focusing on themes of empowerment, racial issues and urban crime. When Blaxploitation was combined with Western films, the Black cowboy movie genre was born. 

Here are ten Black cowboy movies that depict the mostly untold history of many of America’s cowboys, ranked in order by their IMDb score and Rotten Tomatoes ranking.  

10. Gang of Roses (2003) 

IMDb: 2.5/10

Rotten Tomatoes: 75%

Gang of Roses is a 2003 Western film. The movie follows a group of female outlaws, led by Rachel, portrayed by Monica Calhoun, seeking revenge for the murder of one of their own. The gang, comprising tough and skilled women played by Lil’ Kim, Stacey Dash, LisaRaye McCoy and Marie Matiko, among others, sets out on a mission to find the killers. As they pursue justice in the Wild West, the film blends action, drama and elements of sisterhood while challenging traditional gender roles in the Western genre. Gang of Roses gained attention for its female-led cast in a typically male-dominated genre and aimed to offer a fresh perspective on the classic Western narrative.

9. They Die by Dawn (2013) 

IMDb: 4.7/10

This Black cowboy movie is not a full-length movie but still a story worth including. They Die by Dawn is a 2013 short film directed by Jeymes Samuel, set in the American West during the early 1900s. The movie depicts a showdown among legendary African American cowboys and outlaws, including characters based on real historical figures like Nat Love, Bill Pickett and Jim Beckwourth. The film revolves around a tense confrontation among these iconic figures, all converging in a small town for a high-stakes showdown with a star-studded cast featuring Erykah Badu, Michael K. Williams, Rosario Dawson and others. Through stylized cinematography and a narrative steeped in Western tropes, They Die by Dawn offers a brief yet impactful glimpse into the lives and conflicts of these legendary figures, celebrating the often overlooked stories of Black cowboys in the Old West.

8. Freedom (2014) 

IMDb: 6.3/10

Rotten Tomatoes: 0%

Freedom (2014) is a drama from director Peter Cousens that follows former enslaved person Samuel Woodward (played by Cuba Gooding Jr.) and his family as they escape from a Mississippi plantation to freedom in Canada in the 1860s. After the death of the plantation owner, Samuel travels north with his wife and young son, braving harsh conditions, bounty hunters and racism among some abolitionists. Samuel draws inspiration from the promise of freedom and a vision he sees of an eagle. While the film’s premise is similar to other successful attempts to tell such a story, Freedom has notably low reviews with a rotten tomatoes score of 0%. New York Daily News critic Graham Fuller criticised the film for trying to be like 12 Years and Slave saying that “the filmmakers’ need to show that not all whites employed in the slave trade were evil.”  Additionally, New York Times critic Andy Webster wrote that the movie “takes a compelling chapter in American history – the flight of slaves from Southern bondage to Canada via the Underground Railroad – and flattens its drama.”

7. Posse (1993) 

IMDb: 5.5/10

Rotten Tomatoes: 33%

Posse, released in 1993, is a Western film directed by and starring Mario Van Peebles. The movie follows the story of Jesse Lee, played by Van Peebles. Jesse is a soldier who returns to the American West seeking justice for his murdered father. He gathers a diverse group of allies, forming a posse, as they set out on a mission of revenge against a corrupt and powerful land baron. Posse stands out for its depiction of African American cowboys, challenging traditional Western narratives by highlighting themes of race, identity and the struggle for justice. It does this by blending elements of action, Western tropes and social commentary. The film offers a fresh and authentic perspective within the Western genre while delivering an entertaining and thought-provoking narrative. 

6. Outlaw Johnny Black (2023)

IMDb: 5.6/10

Rotten Tomatoes: 65%

Outlaw Johnny Black is a 2023 Black Western that is written and directed by Michael Jai White. It stars Anika Noni Rose, Byron Minns, Tony Baker, Jill Scott and more, alongside White as the leading role. The movie Johnny Black , a good turned bad cowboy who is hell-bent on tracking and gunning down the man responsible for his father’s death named Brett Clayton. Black becomes a wanted outlaw on his trek after posing as a preacher in the small mining town he travels through that has been taken over by a notorious landbaron. Outlaw Johnny Black serves as a “spiritual sequel” to the movie also starring White, Black Dynamite. Outlaw Johnny Black is one of the most recent contributions to the Black cowboy movie repertoire and offers a fresh story that diverts from the typical path these films usually take.  

5. Boss Nigger (1975) 

IMDb: 6.3/10

Rotten Tomatoes: 73%

Boss Nigger is a 1975 Western blaxploitation film directed by Jack Arnold. The movie follows the story of two African American bounty hunters, Boss (Fred Williamson) and Amos (D’Urville Martin), who take charge of a town named San Miguel in the Old West. Boss and Amos encounter racial prejudice and hostility as they enforce the law and take on the roles of sheriff and deputy. The film’s title, which stirred controversy due to its provocative nature, is reflective of the characters’ attempts to assert their authority and challenge societal norms in a predominantly white frontier setting. Boss Nigger stands out for its portrayal of Black protagonists in the Western genre and addresses themes of racism, justice and the struggle for respect and equality.

4. Buck and the Preacher (1972) 

IMDb: 6.5/10

Rotten Tomatoes: 84%

Buck and the Preacher is a 1972 Western film directed by and starring Sidney Poitier alongside Harry Belafonte. The movie follows the story of Buck, a wagon master, and the Preacher, a con artist turned minister, as they lead a group of African American settlers through the dangerous territories of the Wild West. Facing various challenges, including racism and betrayal, the duo uses their wits and resilience to navigate the perils of the frontier while providing a compelling portrayal of the struggles and triumphs of Black Americans during that era. The film stands out for its representation of Black protagonists in a genre typically dominated by white characters, offering a blend of action, drama and social commentary within the Western setting.

3. Nope (2022)

IMDb: 6.8/10

Rotten Tomatoes: 83%

Here is a surprising entry to this Black cowboy movies list: Nope (2022) most would probably not consider this sci-fi horror Jordan Peele film a Western film, but the themes of these popular Black cowboy movies throughout the years are central in this story. Nope stars Daniel Kaluuya, Keke Palmer and Steven Yeun and follows ranch owners OJ and Emerald Haywood as they attempt to get video evidence of an unidentified flying object that has been terrorizing their horses. They team up with a tech salesman and try to capitalize on the UFO presence near their California ranch, but the strange extra-terrestrial force becomes increasingly violent and dangerous as they pursue it. Reviews praised the film for its spectacle and social commentary on human obsession, though some felt the ending did not fully deliver on the film’s buildup. Additionally, a central theme of the film is the Haywoods’ distant relative, a Black man riding a horse pictured in the first ever moving picture. Overall, Nope delivers stunning visuals and layered themes, like Black Western culture, on the human desire to document and exploit phenomena beyond our understanding.

2. The Harder They Fall (2021) 

IMDb: 6.6/10

Rotten Tomatoes: 88%

The Harder They Fall is a 2021 Western film directed by Jeymes Samuel. This highly stylized and action-packed movie follows Nat Love, portrayed by Jonathan Majors, as he seeks revenge against a ruthless outlaw named Rufus Buck, played by Idris Elba, who murdered his parents. Love assembles a gang of fellow outlaws and bounty hunters, including historical figures like Bill Pickett and Stagecoach Mary, to take down Buck and his notorious gang. The film blends historical elements with fictional storytelling, featuring a predominantly Black cast and infusing the classic Western genre with vibrant energy, intense action sequences and a contemporary edge while paying homage to the traditions of the Wild West. Its visually striking cinematography, compelling performances and dynamic storytelling make it a standout in modern Western cinema. 

1. Django Unchained (2012)

IMDb: 8.5/10

Rotten Tomatoes: 87%

There is no discussing Black cowboy movies without mentioning this iconic film. Django Unchained (2012), directed by Quentin Tarantino, is a revisionist Western set in the pre-Civil War era. The film follows Django, played by Jamie Foxx, a freed enslaved person who partners with a bounty hunter, Dr. King Schultz, portrayed by Christoph Waltz, to rescue his wife (Kerry Washington) from a brutal plantation owner, Calvin Candie, portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio. Tarantino infuses the narrative with his signature style, combining intense violence, sharp dialogue and a mix of homage and subversion of classic Western tropes. The film tackles themes of slavery, revenge and racial injustice, using its over-the-top storytelling to shed light on the horrors of America’s past while creating a gripping and thought-provoking cinematic experience. It received critical acclaim for its performances, risky screenplay and direction, earning accolades and sparking discussions about its handling of sensitive historical subjects.