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Photo: ‘The Harder They Fall’
The Wild West and the legacy of cowboys have for a very long time been whitewashed in Cinema, actors like John Wayne or Clint Eastwood acting as the face of the genre. But this isn’t actually historically accurate, in fact, experts estimate that in reality more than a quarter of the era’s cowboys were Black. William Loren Katz, a scholar of African American history, said, “Right after the Civil War, being a cowboy was one of the few jobs open to men of color who wanted to not serve as elevator operators or delivery boys or other similar occupations.” There are a few films that focus on Black narratives of the western tale, one of the first representations of Black cowboys was in ‘Lonesome Dove’, a 1989 miniseries based on Larry McMurtry’s novel. In 1993, the western film ‘Posse’ was released, which was an exception to the status quo in its nearly all-Black cast.
White people weren’t alone in westward expansion and there were several iconic Black cowboys, so how come it still feels brand new? In the upcoming film ‘The Harder They Fall’ the majority Black cast (and a pretty star-studded one at that) takes on a classic cowboy revenge tale. While the story itself is fictional, many of the characters are based on real figures. The film had its theatrical debut on October 22nd and began streaming on Netflix on November 3rd. According to Indie Wire, “The idea of making a straightforward Western about two rival factions of African-American outlaws shouldn’t require any stretch of the imagination. This isn’t ‘Hamilton’.”
‘The Harder They Fall’ Film Synopsis
‘The Harder They Fall’ is a story about revenge. As a little boy, Nat Love’s parents were killed mercilessly in front of him at the hands of Rufus Buck and his gang. Buck carved a cross into Love’s forehead, but left him alive. Since then, Love (Jonathan Majors) has gone on to become a notorious outlaw himself; however, he only steals from other thieves. As a way to avenge his family, he has killed every member of the gang that killed his family besides Buck, who is locked away in prison. When news that Buck (Idris Elba) has been freed, Love rounds up his gang including love interest Stagecoach Mary (Zazie Beetz), hot-tempered Bill Pickett (Edi Gathegi), Jim Beckwourth (RJ Cyler), and Cuffee (Danielle Deadwyler). He plans to hunt down his arch-nemesis and kill him.
Buck has his own ambitions though, hoping to make a utopia for other Black people in Redwood, a predominately Black town. “Elba conveys more with a half-shut eyelid than most actors can with their entire bodies, and he puts just enough top-serve on every shot to keep us guessing,” said Indie Wire. Buck also has his own trusted crew of equally cool and intimidating outlaws, including “Treacherous” Trudy Smith (Regina King) and Cherokee Bill (LaKeith Stanfield), and it’s only a matter of time until the two gangs face off head-to-head.
Buck has a strict moral code, making him an interesting and layered antagonist in the story. He wants a safe place for Black people, but he does so by force and at those people’s financial expense. Deadline writes “There is a lot to be said about capitalism and what that looks like in micro-communities of color, under the guise of “helping each other out.” Buck understands the cycle of violence will come back to haunt him one day, but he had some revenge of his own to tend to, and there were some casualties.”
The women in the film are also amazing, holding their own in a genre that has all but totally erased them. It’s another aspect to the story that makes it original, not only having female cowboys, but having them play a major component in the story; they are equally dangerous and to be feared, not just there as a stand-in love interest or as a damsel in distress. Director and co-writer Jeymes Samuel said in an interview, “The strongest people I’ve ever met in my life were Black women. If you take this out of the narrative, on a basic root level, you’ve actually ruined the swag. You can have so much more if you just obey the truth.” Zazie Beetz is a stand-out in the film, especially captivating in her role. She is most well known for her role as Vanessa in ‘Atlanta’, which Stanfield also stars in. King is equally breathtaking in her role as Trudy, a tough-as-nails badass. Every scene with Mary and Trudy it was impossible to look away.
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Truly, all the acting in the film is wonderful. Majors makes a charismatic and entertaining protagonist, as well as RJ Cyler who gave several moments of levity and humor. I won’t comment on how Idris Elba is in two (two!) cowboy movies in the last few months. That feels like more cowboy movies than most, but I digress.
The Influence Of Music
Samuel is relatively new as a director and writer, however, he is an established musician under a different moniker, The Bullitts. His first film was with ‘They Die By Dawn’, another western released in 2013. He also acted as the Executive Music Consultant for the film ‘The Great Gatsby’, and alongside Jay-Z worked on the soundtrack. The two continued their partnership and now Jay-Z acts as one of the producers for the movie. Boaz Yakin was the other writer of the film, known for other works such as ‘Now You See Me’.
According to Variety, Samuel has always appreciated the Old West and as a child took it upon himself to research it, especially the history relating to non-white history. He said, “The problem is historically, more often than not, we’d be shown a really narrow viewpoint of what Westerns are. I grew up knowing all the words to ‘Windy City’ by Doris Day, from ‘Calamity Jane.’ But I never learned anything about Stagecoach Mary or Gertrude Smith. … I never learned anything about all of these amazing people of color.” The film has received positive reviews, already receiving the Ensemble Tribute at the Gotham Awards, Gotham Film & Media Institute. Samuel’s influence as a musician also has an impact on the film’s original soundtrack, with new songs from Ms. Lauryn Hill, Alice Smith, and Seal who happens to be Samuel’s brother.
The scoring of the film is interesting and how it’s utilized throughout the film is fun to watch; sound editing has a tremendous influence on tone and style. The camera work is also playful and takes creative and distinctive shots. For this film pastiche, as well as playing with pastiche was important. “In the context of film and television, [pastiche] is a cinematic device that directly mimics the cinematography or scene work of another filmmaker through the direct imitation of iconic moments in that movie or TV show,” according to No Film School. A lot of the film feels like an ode to great spaghetti westerns, but there are moments of modernity and uniqueness that clash making it especially entertaining.
It’s Revisionist History, Not An Alternative One
Almost all of the characters in the film are based on real-life humans who lived during the 19th century in various times; Rufus Buck, Nat Love, “Treacherous” Trudy Smith, Stagecoach Mary Fields, Cherokee Bill, and Bass Reeves (Delroy Lindo) were all genuine vigilantes, cowboys, and outlaws. Although they most likely never crossed paths, the opening preface reads, “While the events of this story are fictional … These. People. Existed.”
Nat Love was a real man, one whose story is a bit different than the narrative here. In real life, Love was a freed slave turned cowboy, and even wrote a memoir about his life titled The Life and Adventures of Nat Love Better Known in the Cattle Country as “Deadwood Dick”. Black cowboys were hugely discriminated against still, such as being barred from restaurants or hotels. But there was a sense of camaraderie within their community. It was important to Samuel in telling this story that it is understood, this was revisionist history, not an alternate one. This is not a twist on a genre or fantasy, but rather a story that has yet to be told or celebrated yet, in the realm of ‘Inglorious Basterds’. And like Quentin Tarantino, Samuel takes creative liberties when telling this story by adding visual pizazz, and in many ways, I think this gives him auteur credibility. “While the real Cherokee Bill probably never called any of his victims a “motherfucker,” and the actual Stagecoach Mary was too busy delivering the mail with a loaded shotgun under each arm to ever sing glittery R&B slow jams at the brothel she owns in this movie, such occasional flourishes of 21st-century flash do more to bring the past into the present than they do the present into the past. They’re accents, not asterisks,” said Indie Wire.
The modernity of the soundtrack, the visuals, and the Avengers-type gathering of iconic Black figures turns the genre on its head. The public doesn’t need another Clint Eastwood cowboy movie, they do however need more Regina King kicking ass.
Cast: Jonathan Majors, Zazie Beets, Delroy Lindo, LaKeith Stanfield, Idris Elba, Regina King, Deon Cole, Edi Gathegi, Danielle Deadwyler
Director: Jeymes Samuel
Writer: Jeymes Samuel, Boaz Yakin
Producers: Lawrence Bender, Shawn Carter, James Lassiter, Jeymes Samuel
By Kylie Bolter
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