Hell on the Border Review: The True Story of a Pioneering Black Lawman

By Jonathon Wilson
Published: December 14, 2019 (Last updated: February 12, 2024)
Hell on the Border Review: The True Story of a Pioneering Black Lawman


A solid and well-crafted Western that tells an atypical true story about Bass Reeves, the first African-American deputy marshall.

Proving that there are still some interesting stories to tell about the Wild West, writer/director Wes Miller’s Hell on the Border is the true tale of former slave turned Marshall Bass Reeves (David Gyasi), who escaped servitude during the Civil War, learned Native American languages, and here sets out to apprehend notorious outlaw Bob Dozier (friend of the site Frank Grillo) with the help of long-in-the-tooth journeyman Charlie Storm (Ron Perlman, getting about this weekend.)

Reeves makes a compelling lead for a Western even without the fascinating historical basis. I’m sure lots of artistic liberties were taken, but the roots of embedded post-abolition attitudes are inarguable, as is the broad scope of Reeves’ career as a lawman under Federal Judge Isaac Parker. Gyasi plays him with intelligence and charisma, and the ever-dependable Grillo delivers as his villainous quarry. It’s a strong pairing for what is otherwise a formulaic low-budget drama template, which is where Hell on the Border unavoidably loses points, since, despite its fresh-feeling protagonist, capable baddie and favoring of practical over digital effects, there’s nothing here that feels particularly new or different, well-crafted as much of it might be.

Other weaknesses are to be found in the script, which could have stood to be less florid, and an overlong runtime that would have benefited from more judicious editing. But as such things go, Hell on the Border, with its atypical central figure and strong supporting cast, is difficult to quibble with. I liked it well enough and appreciated its efforts to showcase a real-life figure whom many won’t be familiar with.

Movie Reviews, Movies