“While the events of this story are fictional…These. People. Existed.”
The words boom like a bass drum in the opening crawl of Jeymes Samuel’s stylish, hyper-violent Black Western fantasy The Harder They Fall. A fantasy, but with frontier icons from all across the 19th-century, some well-known, some not so much, in a superhero-esque mashup featuring the coolest actors of color and a killer score with new songs by exec-producer Jay-Z. This wildly over-the-top shoot ’em up is like the spiritual sequel to Posse, the two painting a picture that redefines where Black cowboys fit into the Western genre and history as a whole.
For literally decades, audiences have seen portraits of the American West that only feature white men as its heroes, its outlaws, its explorers. People of color were always subservient if they appeared at all, and women had it just as bad. These depictions were fanciful even then, bordering on mythological. So when films like Posse or The Harder They Fall come along and present a guns blazing thriller about rival gangs and a mission of vengeance, it balances the scales just a little bit.
Not that Samuel, working with co-writer Boaz Yakin (Now You See Me, Remember the Titans), is overly concerned with serious racial issues or anything like that. The Harder They Fall is all about flash, and I mean the flash of a pistol bustin’ off shots in one of numerous gunfights between warring factions of Black gangs. Jonathan Majors plays real-life outlaw Nat Love, who along with his crew that includes Zazie Beetz as Stagecoach Mary, RJ Cyler as Jim Beckwourth, and Edi Gathegi as Bill Pickett, seeks revenge against recently-released murderer Rufus Buck, played by a swaggering Idris Elba. Actually, EVERYBODY swaggers here because that’s just what you did back then. That includes Regina King as Trudy Smith, Lakeith Stanfield as Cherokee Bill, and more. Delroy Lindo, the elder statesman of this spectacular ensemble, fits in rightfully as legendary lawman Bass Reeves, himself the subject of a recent biopic and a potential upcoming film led by Oscar-winning director Chloe Zhao.
Just don’t go in expecting Wikipedia-level portrayals. The film begins with Buck barging in to the home of a family about to sit down for dinner. The father played by veteran actor Michael Beach, a sure sign his character is doomed because Michael Beach characters have a low living percentage, pleads with Buck not to hurt his family. Buck promptly murders the wife, murders him, then carves a cross into the young son’s forehead. That boy would grow up to be Nat Love, and when he learns Buck has been broken out of prison, in a terrific train rescue sequence against a bunch of cowering white soldiers, he vows to get revenge.
Samuel lays down the comic book-style standard early on with Buck’s escape. Locked up in a massive iron vault, Buck emerges from his imprisonment slowly, deep in shadow. It’s like somebody has unleashed Mumm-Ra or Apocalypse into an unsuspecting world. You half expect him to be covered in mist or followed by a trail of bats.
You can see Samuel’s musical roots in every scene. The Harder They Fall is less a tight narrative than it is a series of little music videos featuring more slo-mo gunfights than we’ve seen since The Matrix. This is familiar ground for Samuel, a musician who in 2013 directed the all-black Western short They Die By Dawn (seek it out if you can, it features the late Michael K. Williams). His style hasn’t changed much since then and that’s not an insult. He’s incredibly accomplished and skillful at choreographing slick, easy-to-follow action. What’s more, he knows what the audience wants to see and that’s Zazie Beetz and Regina King slugging it out in a dusty saloon, or Stanfield as the cool-as-ice killer who stays above the fray unless provoked. It’s interesting how neatly these actors fit into their roles.
In regards to Beetz and King’s roles, The Harder They Fall makes note of placing women at the head of the table in terms of importance to the action. They might be the biggest names but they aren’t the only ones. Danielle Deadwyler plays Mary’s gender-fluid bodyguard Cuffee, a scene-stealer who is as deadly, and as quick, as any loudmouth man.
While Nat may have a just cause to murder Rufus Buck, all of these people are outlaws. Good guys and bad guys do exist, like Bass Reeves, but they are largely adjacent to the schemes of desperadoes just trying to get ahead. In one of the film’s rare subtle points, Rufus Buck establishes a base of operations in Redwood City a place full of color and panache, as opposed to the lily-white town nearby. Buck plans to expand his operation, and Stagecoach Mary has similar aspirations in mind. Black cowboys were a big part of western expansion following the Civil War, despite the history books and the movies telling us otherwise. The Harder They Fall is here to put a bullet in any false notions about the prominence of people of color in the Old West, and look good while doing it. This League of Extraordinary Black Cowboys (and Cowgirls) are practically begging to saddle up for another adventure.
The Harder They Fall opens in select theaters on October 22nd, then exclusively to Netflix on November 3rd.