Letitia Wright impresses in this sharp and stylish Western in which a freed slave passing herself off as a man is trapped in a stand-off with a notorious outlaw.
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“Surrounded” will be available for rental on most VOD streaming platforms June 20. That’s a bit of a shame, because it’s a sharp and stylish Western starring Letitia Wright that would play much better on a big screen.
It’s an unsparing, old-school oater, a story of revenge and tense stand-offs. Wright plays Mo Washington, a freed slave who joined the Buffalo Soldiers during the Civil War. In 1870 Mo has mustered out, refusing to fight in the Indian wars against people “two shades lighter than me,” and is heading out west to seek peace and fortune.
She is also a woman passing herself off as a man, or at least a teenage boy as most people see her. Wright cuts an impressive figure in sleek period suit and wide hat, knowing just how to tilt her head so her eyes emerge from beneath the brim in a hard glare. Mo carries a respectable Remington six-shooter that fits easily in her hand, despite being nearly as long as her whole torso.
Mo buys a ticket on a stagecoach heading out Colorado way but is forced to sit in the back owing to her dark skin. The coach is soon waylaid by notorious outlaw Tommy Walsh (Jamie Bell) and his gang. She is content to hand over her folding money, since her real fortune is a piece of paper stuck in between the Bible she always carries.
But the idiot white men insist on having a shoot-out, and in the ensuing melee people are killed and wounded, with Mo doing not a little of the bloodletting. As it happens, Tommy is captured while most of his gang gets away. Wheeler, a local man of some importance played by Jeffrey Donovan, orders Mo to guard Tommy while they escort a wounded man back to town.
Tommy has a $10,000 bounty on his head — that’s a quarter-mil in today’s dollars — so there is some excitement about collecting the reward, on top of bringing one of the worst bandits to justice. There is also word that Tommy recently robbed a bank of $40,000 and buried it somewhere in the region. You can practically see the gears turning inside people’s heads and the dollar signs in their eyes as they calculate how to manipulate circumstances to their most profitable outcome.
What follows is a long will of games between Tommy and Mo. Tommy is crafty and preys upon Mo’s sullen pride and desire for freedom — true freedom, the kind that comes with owning a piece of land and being the decider of your own fate. Mo has a strong sense of morals — that Bible isn’t just for show — but teeters at the temptation.
“I’m a Black woman living in this white world. I gotta work three times as hard to get one-fifth of what I deserve. I’m tired of it,” she says.
Most of the action takes place around one dead tree in the middle of the plains, a place blasted by the sun one day and shivering with frost the next. The pile of bodies gradually grows higher as the game between Mo and Tommy ratchets up more and more.
Bell shows a mix of bluster and sly charisma as Tommy, a man who figures the world is so crooked his only choice is to stack the rules in his favor. He’s very much aware of his reputation as a famed killer, using it like a favorite tool to pick and pry his way into Mo’s confidence.
Other parties will intrude upon the contest, including some Cherokee and desperate figures. Michael K. Williams, in his final credited feature film role, turns up as Will Clay, a local farmer who heard about the commotion and came to see if he could help. He appeals to Mo as ‘one of your people,’ a friendly dark face in a sea of sneering white ones.
It seems likely that Mo will eventually give in to Tommy’s slithery entreaties, especially his offer to split the bank money “right down the middle.” But Mo’s fierce sense of independence is both her armor and Achilles’ heel, and keeps gumming up the works.
Wright, best known for the “Black Panther” movies, underplays with terrific screen presence and natural charisma. Her Mo is not a typical steely gunfighter in the Clint Eastwood mold, but someone possessing both vulnerability as well as great reserves of willpower. She’s fully capable of taking a life — quite good at it, in fact — but does so with reluctant forbearance.
Directed by Anthony Mandler from an original screenplay by Andrew Pagana and Justin Thomas, “Surrounded” cracks like worn leather against supple horsehide. It’s a gritty mix of history, mythology and racial reckoning.