Vibrant and Bold Western The Harder They Fall Still Isn’t Above Its Genre StumblesMovies Reviews Netflix
The importance of Black folks to the “taming” of the West is a central thrust to The Harder They Fall, both as a motivation for first-time feature director Jeymes Samuel, who grew up watching Westerns and wanted to see one starring Black people, and for the plot. The actors, visual style and musical choices elevate an imperfect script with memorable if not completely unique dialogue and scenes. The cast and performances are remarkable and it’s an aesthetically striking film with great set, sound and costume design. Real-life historical figures are treated like folk heroes, for better and for worse. The Harder They Fall has its problems, but it’s a testament to the idea that there are still interesting things to be done in familiar genres, like inserting color aesthetically and demographically.
The plot revolves around Nat Love, a real-life cowboy portrayed by Jonathan Majors as an “outlaw who robs outlaws,” who teams up with the legendary Black U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves (Delroy Lindo) to take down real-life outlaw Rufus Buck (Idris Elba). Buck and his gang—most notably, his lieutenants Trudy Smith (Regina King) and Cherokee Bill (Lakeith Stanfield)—have recently been pardoned for their crimes of bank robbery, murder and associated acts in exchange for killing a crooked Army officer and his battalion. Now they’re attempting to raise funds to secure the future of a Black-majority town they founded in what seems to be pre-statehood Oklahoma Territory, defending its sovereignty from the incursion of white settlers. Love wants revenge on Buck for killing his parents in the film’s first scene. Reeves wants to bring Buck to justice. They are accompanied on their journey by Love’s old flame Stagecoach Mary (Zazie Beetz), her chief lieutenant Cuffee (Danielle Deadwyler) and Love’s compatriots, Jim Beckwourth (RJ Cyler) and Bill Pickett (Edi Gathegi).
Along the way, we get a bunch of gunfights and hand-to-hand combat that are well-choreographed and exciting—you’re able to follow the shots and the punches even while the film delivers chaos and surprise, and it can be quite bloody and visceral. Some of the film’s most thrilling practical effects include explosions that happen toward the end, but sequences focused on familiar Western tropes (a standoff at a bar and a train robbery among them) are similarly engaging, with scenes arranged in a bar, for instance, to show the disruption of a good time by the long arm of the law, or the use of an overhead angle in the train robbery to show the claustrophobic dimensions of a gun-point negotiation.
The Harder They Fall begins with a black screen upon which these words are written: “While the events of this story are fictional…” And then: “These. People. Existed.”
I can’t help but wonder at the historical merit and, forgive me for using a term beaten to death, “representation” of turning mountain men like Jim Beckwourth and cowboys like Nat Love into outlaws. Many of these people never met, much less had an outfit together. On the other hand, Rufus Buck and “Cherokee Bill” Crawford Goldsby did have real mixed race (Black and Native American) gangs of outlaws in the 19th century. Stagecoach Mary was the first African-American female star-route mail carrier in the U.S.; known for carrying multiple firearms, it was for fighting off thieves and bandits, not patrolling her chain of saloons. But I’m willing to grant artistic license when a movie starts off telling you it’s made up, as opposed to say, a Green Book that claims to be true and then has the family members of the protagonists arguing in the press about story veracity, or a BlacKkKlansman that revises the life story of a cop that spied on Black liberation movement organizations to make him an anti-Klan hero. One of the historical interpretations I found inspiring in The Harder They Fall is Deadwyler’s Cuffee/Cathay Williams, because the character encompasses a genderqueer identity, even if the language we would use for that today isn’t in the film. Cuffee was based on the lone documented woman to serve in the U.S. Army during the Civil War while posing as a man (as a historical disclaimer, I can’t say how they would have identified in 2021, but that’s how the filmmakers described them in the film’s press material).
The real thematic problem with The Harder They Fall, on a genre level and a historical level away from structural issues of tone, is in an act of erasure that is remarkable because the film is set in an unspecified “territory” location that is clearly supposed to be Oklahoma and is focused on Black folk heroes of the West, many of whom had either familial or social relationships with Native Americans (the latter is among what Bass Reeves is known for). Implicit in the act of “taming” the West is the robbing of the people who the land belongs to. The absence of Native Americans is a glaring failure when you’re trying to reintroduce the historical fact of Black people in this space. Bill Pickett’s real-life Native American heritage doesn’t figure into the film at all; Crawford Goldsby’s is down to the use of his nickname (Cherokee Bill), a line in his first scene where he refers to the “Great Spirit,” and a line in his last scene where he speaks Cherokee. I recommend the film, but with that as a heavy caveat; it’s frankly embarrassing to whiff on including Native American people in an intentionally inclusive Western. For all of Mario Van Peebles’s 1993 revisionist Western Posse’s critical woes, it had prominent Indigenous characters; hell, Hondo has prominent Indigenous characters.
That erasure creates a dissonance with some of the themes, mainly that ideas surrounding the right for Black folks to exist in a space that’s being taken from them could have been strengthened through interaction with the people who lived in the place before them and, more interestingly, with them. If you’re taking the mission of the film seriously, that is a problem that will resonate with you and corrupt that mission. There’s no real getting past it once you notice it, you just hold onto it through the film, and accept that the piece of art has an irresponsible quality about it.
Accepting that, The Harder They Fall remains an exciting film built on great performances. Every actor simultaneously feels like they’re trying to outperform each other while working in concert rather than against each other. Deon Cole’s Wiley Escoe was probably the biggest surprise for me. His role in the film is as Rufus Buck’s former friend, who took over the town of Redwood after selling Rufus out, becoming sheriff and mayor as a result. Escoe is arguably the most superfluous character, though I’ve never seen the Old Spice spokesperson so venomous or menacing. While the dialogue has a few awkward moments, each character feels unique (as opposed to the writer’s voice coming through each of them) and it really shines when Samuel and co-writer Boaz Yakin are funny, especially through Cyler’s character. The most consistent writing flaw is the inconsistency of its tone: The Harder They Fall feels undecided on whether it wants to simply be a collection of references to Western tropes or a solemn and sordid revenge tale. To that end, we learn that Nat Love’s own revenge is the final act of Buck’s revenge; a bridge too far for me, though commentary on the folly of using violence to end a cycle of violence is present throughout the film. It felt unnecessary, more like Spectre than The Empire Strikes Back: Love didn’t care why Buck killed his parents, and the audience isn’t given much reason to either.
Still, Samuel shows an interesting vision. The film doesn’t try to sell itself as serious by being bland or washed out; it moves quickly through different locales and allows us to focus on each character and their distinctive ways of moving and speaking to make the images stick in our heads. This Black Western world has glaring suns, moonlit nights and smoky rooms. A quiet and intense robbery uses humor to add to, rather than subvert, tension. A canyon shootout intersperses comedic arguments among merciless murder. Martin Whist’s production design was electrifying—his dynamic use of color made these seem like real places that had time, energy and money put into them by the people that lived in them. Westerns have occasionally shared a problem with some films set in medieval or ancient Europe—bereft of color because that is how archaeologists found them centuries later, though in the case of Westerns it’s rather a remark, conscious or otherwise, on the way the sands of time and economic busts quickly deprived those towns of their dynamism. The Harder They Fall is intentionally simultaneously bright and lived-in, and the main settings of the Black towns of Redwood City and Douglastown contrast with each other, and even more with the white town (Caucasian residents, white-painted buildings, white sand, white horses) of Maysville. Again, though, I think of how some Black settlements in these areas came from Black communities that were either constituent parts of Native American tribes, or enslaved by them.
Samuel, a Black British singer-songwriter and producer, is making his feature film directorial debut after making a Black cowboy short film in 2013 called They Die by Dawn, which has an incredible cast and some of the same characters. That these two directorial efforts have the same focal point shows that Samuel has a mission he feels dedicated to accomplishing: The inclusion of African-Americans in the cowboy canon.
Between the Westerns, Samuel directed a music video for Jay-Z’s 4:44 and music was a frequent cast member here, adding through score and soundtrack to sell scenes, though not as heavy-handed as Lovecraft Country, where lyrical reinforcement often felt awkward and didn’t allow scenes to breathe. The title The Harder They Fall seems to allude to the chorus lyrics of a song by reggae star Jimmy Cliff, written for a movie he starred in called The Harder They Come. That was a Jamaican crime story famous for helping popularize reggae music throughout the world, and this film includes reggae among its soundtrack, including an eponymous track by reggae/ragamuffin artist Koffee that serves as the pivot to the credits, and the introductory scene for Buck’s gang features Samuel’s own arrangement of Barrington Levy’s dancehall classic, “Here I Come/Broader than Broadway,” though it doesn’t appear on the soundtrack’s setlist. Levy’s unreleased “Better Than Gold” appears both in the film and on the official soundtrack, which also features Jadakiss and Lauryn Hill, among others. The track which plays over the stylized, partially-animated title cards after the prologue and serves as the theme song by summarizing the characters and themes is “Guns Go Bang” by Kid Cudi and Jay-Z.
Among this music is singing from the Nat Love Gang, which reminded me of a more concise and soulful version of the scene in Rio Bravo, though the tone of the music and the overall tone of the film is more like The Magnificent Seven, High Noon or A Fistful of Dollars—films distinct from one another in their Western subgenres and eras, but similar in the tension and violence that motivates them. More studied scholars of the Western can probably pull the exact films that specific scenes draw from, but for me, the most obvious comparisons are the Black-led Tarantino “Southerns” Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight, and Posse, a film about a fictional troupe of Buffalo Soldiers and their white comrade which ends with a caption about the over 8,000 Black cowboys of the Old West whose stories are commonly ignored in American mythmaking. Hopefully, The Harder They Fall puts a stop to that. It’s worth watching at least once for the spectacle of the vibrant colors and great performances, and to be introduced to real historical characters, even if audiences must look far from the film to figure out what they were actually like. It does a great job reinserting Black people into the story of the U.S. western expansion, but it’s a qualified success because the film ignores the people the U.S. was stolen from, in places and among people where they could still be found.
Director: Jeymes Samuel
Writer: Jeymes Samuel, Boaz Yakin
Stars: Jonathan Majors, Idris Elba, Zazie Beetz, Regina King, Delroy Lindo, Lakeith Stanfield, RJ Cyler, Danielle Deadwyler, Edi Gathegi, Deon Cole
Release Date: October 22, 2021 (theaters); November 3, 2021 (Netflix)
Kevin Fox, Jr. is a freelance writer and Paste intern. He loves videogames, film, history, pop culture, sports, and human rights, and can be found on Twitter @kevinfoxjr.