10 Great Westerns Centering Women and People of Color

The Classical Hollywood era, from the 1930s through the 1960s, churned out some of the greatest western films ever made. This period was followed by the heyday of the Spaghetti Western from Italy, where filmmakers like Sergio Leone and Sergio Corbucci (and some filmmakers not named Sergio) crafted western epics with darker themes and more gritty violence.

But the vast majority of these films center entirely on white men, so when a film lover asks online for some great western films that don’t only feature white men, suggestions range from the 1960s to the 2020s. Below I’ve selected some of the best films from the discussion and added some of my picks for the best westerns that feature women and people of color as lead characters. 

1. The Harder They Fall (2021)

Harder They Fall

The Harder They Fall draws on the real history of black outlaws, lawmen, and more in the old west to create a classic western story inhabited by an almost entirely black cast. The film follows Nat Love (Jonathan Majors) as he seeks revenge on Rufus Buck (Idris Elba), who killed his family years ago.

Throughout his journey, Nat teams up with several others who are sympathetic to his cause, offering audiences a sense of older westerns like The Magnificent Seven while populating the team with black men and women instead of only white men. 

2. The Nightingale (2018)

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Image Credit: Transmission Films

The Nightingale from The Babadook writer/director Jennifer Kent is one of the most viscerally disturbing westerns ever made, precisely because it centers on the experiences of women and indigenous people in 19th century Tasmania. The film follows an Irish woman and an indigenous man working together to seek revenge on a British officer who sexually assaulted the woman. It’s a difficult film to watch, but also one of the best westerns about colonialism ever made. 

3. Five Fingers for Marseilles (2017)

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Image Credit: Game 7 Films

Five Fingers for Marseilles is a South African western that begins with five friends, known as the “Five Fingers,” in the town of Marseilles fifteen years ago when racist Boer police oppress them and their town. Now, one of the titular fingers has returned home after a time away. He finds his town again in the grip of oppression and decides to help them however he can. It’s a film that draws heavily from the history of American and Italian westerns but makes its story and style specifically South African. 

4. Buck and The Preacher (1972)

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Image Credit: Columbia Pictures

Buck and the Preacher is the first film directed by legendary black actor Sidney Poitier. He shows just as much talent behind the camera as in front. The film follows the titular Buck (Poitier) and Preacher (Harry Belafonte) as they work to get a wagon train of formerly enslaved people in the late 1860s safely west. They’re pursued by a villainous group of white people and have to make deals with the indigenous population on their journey west. It’s a western that’s just as socially and politically powerful as it is thrilling. 

5. The Good, The Bad, The Weird (2008)

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Image Credit: IFC Films

As you might have guessed, The Good, the Bad, the Weird is a riff on Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Both films feature various factions hunting down treasure, but The Good, the Bad, the Weird moves the action from the American old west to late 1930s Manchuria. But it’s not just a remake with a new setting; The Good, the Bad, the Weird is its own wonderful western wild ride, as the film includes some breathtaking action sequences and an often over-the-top sensibility that makes it a delight from start to finish. 

6. Marlina The Murderer in Four Acts (2017)

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Image Credit: Kimstim Films

Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts is a special movie for many reasons. It’s an Indonesian Spaghetti Western written and directed by a woman, Mouly Surya, that tells the story of a woman, the titular Marlina (Marsha Timothy). Marlina is a recent widow whose home is attacked by bandits at the film’s start. But she manages to kill them all, decapitating their leader, and then spends most of the film attempting to report the event. It’s a moody film with an incredible score and amazing photography of the Indonesian desert. 

7. The Quick and The Dead (1995)

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Image Credit: TriStar Pictures

Between the Evil Dead and Spider-Man movies, director Sam Raimi made some dramas and this western. The Quick and the Dead plays out like a sports movie, as the entire film revolves around a shooting competition in which gunslingers compete to win the title of the fastest gun. The movie is, unsurprisingly, filled with white men characters, but at the center is the mysterious woman Ellen (Sharon Stone), who has a score to settle with the most powerful man in town. 

8. Once Upon a Time in The West (1968)

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Image Credit: Paramount Pictures

Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West is the earliest film on this list and an ensemble piece featuring Charles Bronson, Henry Fonda, Jason Robards, and Claudia Cardinale. Cardinale’s character lands the movie a spot on this list because even when the film is focused on the men around her, it’s her piece of land, called “Sweetwater,” that’s the center of the conflict in the film. It’s an epic story of early capitalism seeking to force individuals aside to make way for profitable industry that’s rightly considered one of the greatest westerns ever made. 

9. Sweet Country (2017)

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Image Credit: Bunya Productions

Sweet Country is another Australian western like The Nightingale that deals with that country’s history of colonialism and racism. Based on a true story of an Aboriginal man who shot and killed a white colonizer in self-defense but then had to go on the run for fear of reprisal, Sweet Country is an equally beautiful and devastating film that highlights the natural wonder of Australia while looking its vicious history directly in the face. 

10. Meek’s Cutoff (2010)

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Image Credit: Oscilloscope Laboratories

Meek’s Cutoff tells the story of a group of pioneers traveling the Oregon High Desert in the 1840s whose journey detours. They were supposed to reach their destination within two weeks, but their guide’s incompetence led them on a journey that stretched for more than five weeks. The movie is about nuclear families of men, women, and children, but what makes it remarkable is the focus on the women in the film, often sticking with their perspective as they watch the men argue in hushed, sometimes inaudible, tones. It’s a film that offers the thrills of the western genre but also emphasizes how socially powerless women were during the period. 

This thread inspired this post.

Featured Image Credit: IFC Films.

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This article was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.

Kyle Logan is a film and television critic and general pop culture writer who has written for Alternative Press, Cultured Vultures, Film Stories, Looper, and more. Kyle is particularly interested in horror and animation, as well as genre films written and directed by queer people and women. Along with writing, Kyle organizes a Queer Film Challenge on Letterboxd.