He spent five days on a Colorado ranch in 2022. Although the trip confirmed for him that it wasn’t what he wanted full time, it taught Mr. Calhoun, who is Black, that the western landscapes he loved on TV were something he could go and enjoy. That was a realization far afield from what he had felt watching westerns when he was growing up.
“I watched ‘Young Guns’ a thousand times,” he said. “There wasn’t much of me in it.”
But as much as it is a place on the map, the West is also an idea, one that changes over time. And amid the latest round of fascination with cowboy culture, the western, a staple film genre since the early days of cinema, is being reimagined for a growing audience.
From 2000 to 2009, Hollywood made 23 movies categorized as westerns, according to Comscore, which compiles box office data. That number shot up to 42 from 2010 to 2019. Some of these new films feature Black cowboys, Native American protagonists, queer heroes and damsels far from distress. Some are directed by female filmmakers, like Jane Campion, whose 2021 movie “The Power of the Dog,” which features a most likely closeted rancher, received more Academy Award nominations than any other film last year.
Alaina Roberts, an American historian who wrote “I’ve Been Here All the While: Black Freedom on Native Land,” was raised with all the classic images of what a western film looked like: Davy Crockett wrestling a bear, John Wayne squinting through the Texas dust. Her mother loved those films.
But when Dr. Roberts started her own career as a scholar, those weren’t the visions of the West that captured her imagination. Instead, she wanted to research stories of her own Black family members, who were enslaved by the Chickasaw and Choctaw tribes in what is now Ardmore, Okla. She also grew fascinated by the Buffalo Soldiers, all-Black regiments who policed the plains.