Thursday, February 15, 2024

Review: "SURROUNDED" Takes a Different Path to the Wild West

TRASH IN MY EYE No. 9 of 2024 (No. 1953) by Leroy Douresseaux

Surrounded (2023)
Running time:  101 minutes (1 hour, 41 minutes)
MPA – R for violence and language
DIRECTOR: Anthony Mandler
WRITERS:  Anthony Pagana and Justin Thomas & Andrew Pagana
PRODUCERS:  Jason Michael Berman, Aaron L. Gilbert, Derek Iger, Anthony Mandler, Ade O'Adesina, and Letitia Wright
CINEMATOGRAPHER:  Max Goldman (D.o.P.)
EDITOR:  Ron Patane
COMPOSER:  Robin Hannibal


Starring:  Letitia Wright, Jamie Bell, Jeffrey Donovan, Michael K. Williams, Kevin Wiggins, Brett Gelman, Luce Rains, Andrew Pagana, Augusta-Allen Jones, Herman Johansen, Keith Jardine, C.M Petrey, Austin Rising, and Tony Sedillo



--Letitia Wright can make audiences put aside her most famous role – that of Shuri in Marvel's “Black Panther” films – and accept her as a 19th soldier who can defend herself with a gun and take on any man trying to get the best of her.

--Although it lacks the epic scope of the great American Western films, Surrounded is riveting and intense.


Surrounded is a 2023 Western drama film directed by Anthony Mandler and starring Letitia Wright, who is also one of the film's producers.  After debuting at the Sun Valley Film Festival in April 2023, MGM released the film digitally (VOD) on June 20, 2023.  Surrounded focuses on a former former Buffalo Soldier who travels west to lay claim on a gold mine, only to end up playing guard to a dangerous, captured outlaw.

Surrounded opens in the year 1870, five years after the end of the Civil War.  Mo Washington (Letitia Wright) is a former Buffalo Soldier.  [This was the nickname given to U. S. Army regiments that were primarily comprised of African-Americans and were formed during the 19th century to serve on the American frontier.]  Mo arrives in Brushwood Gulch, New Mexico, the last stop on the edge of the Wild West.

Mo has a secret.  He is actually a she.  Mo is a former slave, who after becoming a freedwoman, disguised herself and became a soldier.  After leaving the army, she travels west to take possession of a gold claim in the Territory of Colorado.  Mo books passage on a stagecoach, but some time after departure, the coach is attacked by a group of “road agents” (marauders) led by the infamous Thomas “Tommy” Walsh (Jamie Bell).

After a chaotic fight, Mo is left to guard the captured Tommy Walsh, who tries to convince her to set him free.  He has buried somewhere in the area the $120,000 that he and his gang stole during a recent bank robbery.  So many sinister figures want him – from members of his gang to bounty hunters and assorted bandits.  Now, Mo finds herself surrounded, and she must survive everyone who is coming for Walsh.  Most of all, she must survive Tommy's wily ways.

Surrounded is a surprisingly intense Western drama made all the more intense that the lead character is a Black woman pretending to be a Black man in a world that hates both.  Add racism and also racial elements and Surrounded is... surrounded by intensity.  This is an unusual scenario for an American Western film, but Cathay Williams was a real-life African-American woman who disguised herself as a man and served out west in the U.S. Army from 1866-68 during the Indian Wars.

Like the film's tone, Letitia Wright is intense – quietly so – as the no-nonsense and devout Mo Washington.  Wright makes everything in her performance seem genuine and convincing, from the way Mo dresses to her ability to wield large pistols.  Wright is best known for playing the role of Shuri, the Wakandan princess in Marvel Studios' Black Panther (2018) and Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (2022).  In Surrounded, however, Wright made me forget Shuri and accept her as 19th century Black woman who survives slavery, the tragic deaths of her parents, and her time as a Buffalo Soldier.

Surrounded is filled with good performances.  Fellow British actor, Jamie Bell (Billy Elliot), has excellent screen chemistry with Wright, and Bell is quiet good as a Western character, bringing complexity and eccentricity to the standard murderous Western outlaw and bank robber.  Surrounded is also the final film appearance of the Emmy Award-nominated actor, Michael K. Williams, who died in 2021.  Here, he makes the most of his small role as Will Clay, so much so that I wish that he had a bigger role in the film.

Surrounded is a surprisingly riveting film.  Early on, it seems as if it doesn't really have the energy to rise above being a mere historical drama and become a true Western film.  It does and eventually hits its stride, although I wish the film had focused on some of the interesting characters outside the Mo Washington-Tommy Walsh dynamic.  Surrounded is currently available to stream on Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV, and Vudu.

7 of 10
★★★½ out of 4 stars

Thursday, February 15, 2024

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