‘Lawmen: Bass Reeves’ Star David Oyelowo on the Character’s Branding: It Represents the ‘Juxtaposition of the Beauty and the Violence’

David Oyelowo plays the title character in “Lawmen: Bass Reeves,” the true story of a man who escaped enslavement and went on to become one of the first U.S. Deputy Marshals. While there is no shortage of stories from the 1860s and 1870s, there are only four known images of Bass Reeves.

So, for the Paramount limited series, a team of artisans worked to tell the story with as much authenticity as possible while only using those four photos as a visual reference.

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“What David wanted to show on camera was the growth of him and the difference in his hair. But for me, it was showing the transformation of his skin — the aging process without prosthetics — showing him from a young man in his 20s to an older man,” said makeup department head Vonda Morris.

Morris’ secret weapon to Oyelowo’s aging transformation was Peter Thomas Roth’s skin tightening strips. “I would tighten that skin so tight to give him a youthful look, and as he started to age, I took that same product to give him creases to age him,” Morris revealed. She didn’t want audiences to look for prosthetic pieces, so the key was giving Oyelowo a natural look. “Our skin doesn’t age in the same way. It just weathers a bit. I designed the creases and weathered the area in certain areas. And along with that, we started adding facial hair. It was hand-laid.”

Oyelowo wanted to come in with his natural hair, so he spent time growing it out. “When he came to work and we began filming, he had his natural Afro,” hair department head Wankaya Hinkson said. “Once he gets his badge, we cut his hair to a more groomed look.” However, due to weather and production delays, Hinkson had to alternate between a wig and natural hair for continuity.

David Oyelowo as Bass Reeves in Lawmen: Bass Reeves, episode 1, season 1, streaming on Paramount+, 2023. Photo Credit: Emerson Miller/Paramount+
David Oyelowo grew out his hair for “Lawmen: Bass Reeves”

The creative team had significant conversations about the branding of Reeves and how to portray that in the show.

“We made the choice to have a brand, which typifies the truly evil and violent nature of possessing another human being,” said Oyelowo. “What we didn’t want to do is sit in the trauma and pain of that form of Black existence in a way that is prohibitive for being able to engage with the narrative, but we wanted visual representations that put you in the reality of the place without dwelling on it.”

Oyelowo continued, “Seeing a brand saying RVS (Reeves) on his back in a tender moment when he’s about to make love to his wife or when he’s having fun fishing for catfish; the juxtaposition of the beauty and the violence is something that we really worked on. It’s one thing to see the whip marks which we’ve seen, and you’re almost anesthetized to, but the brand is a different thing.”

Added Morris, “I sculptured it because I wanted to show our story of keloid. If you look at it, you can almost feel it. I was able to design things that represented us.”

David Oyelowo as Bass Reeves in Lawmen: Bass Reeves, episode 1, season 1, streaming on Paramount+, 2023. Photo Credit: Lauren Smith/Paramount+
David Oyelowo and the show’s artisans had extensive conversations about his branding.

Isis Mussenden did extensive research in designing the costumes for “Bass Reeves.” Her most valuable resource was a Time Warner book series about farmers, pioneer women and the Civil War. “In researching these books deeply, we started to get an idea of where Bass Reeves landed in this world,” said Mussenden, who also brought in a Civil War consultant.

The artisan knew Reeves needed two main suits. “The collarless shirt and jacket really came from the few pictures we had of Bass Reeves,” said Mussenden, who observed he never had a collar in the photos. “That’s how we amplified that against the other lawmen, so we could get some separation and contrast.”

David Oyelowo as Bass Reeves in Lawmen: Bass Reeves, episode 4, season 1, streaming on Paramount+, 2023. Photo Credit: Lauren Smith/Paramount+
Costume designer Isis Mussenden didn’t give him a collar because the real-life photos showed he never had one.

In building the sets, production designer Wynn Thomas worked to help ground Oyelowo and the rest of the cast in the time period. “Most people have no sense of what life was like back in those days, how people lived and what their day-to-day life was like,” he said. “The details that we provide as production designers help give the actors a sense of time and place, which will shape the choices that an actor will make.”

Thomas put a lot of thought into building the slave quarters. “They were probably made out of log cabins. I wanted to keep it stark, simple and neat because that’s who Jenny is. She may be in these harsh circumstances, but her own personal living space is quite well maintained,” he said.

When Reeves heads into Indian Territory, Thomas wanted that journey to be as “stark as possible.” That meant open skies and not a lot of trees. “I put in all these stone locations. If you look at the locations very carefully, they’re filled with harsh surfaces. The whole idea is that this man is walking across these locations without any shoes on, so the physical struggle is reflected in his environments.”

Thomas’ color palette was grounded in browns, creams and earth tones. “You don’t see you don’t see a lot of primary colors like reds and blues. You see a lot of earth tones specifically because all of these characters are very earthbound,” he said. “The whole idea is that these characters are really building their worlds in the environments from the earth.”

Snydersville, Penn., proved to be the perfect location to build the main city. “We could construct period-correct facades on all the lower parts of the buildings. And then all the upper parts of the buildings were done through visual effects.”

As for the music, composer Chanda Dancy used a big orchestra, plus solo fiddling on the violin and viola for a soulfulness to the soundscape. For the show’s opening cue, as Bass is on a horse trotting behind Confederate soldiers, Dancy used the timpani for the military nod. Otherwise, there were low tones from the bass and cello to create a sense of dread: “It’s setting up this dark, bleak tone.”

Ultimately, the show is about family, which becomes the beating heart of Bass Reeves — the character, the real man and the series. “A Light in No Man’s Land” is the first cue she wrote. “He’s full of pride, justice and love for his family. He loves his family so much, and considering everything he’s experienced, he has this light,” Dancy said. “That theme keeps coming out throughout the show. it gets you in that headspace of a great man of great justice with a great family.”

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