Loud, vivid, violent, and messy, The Harder They Fall (currently playing on Netflix) is the kind of movie you stumble across on a random evening and are relieved that there’s something fairly lively to watch. If you like Westerns, that is.
The writer-director-producer is Jeymes Samuel, also known by his music world moniker The Bullitts and for his relationship to his brother, Henry Samuel, aka Seal. Here, he’s cowriting his feature film debut with Boaz Yakin and coproducing with longtime collaborator Jay-Z. Samuel likes Westerns so much — Westerns of all kinds, it seems: classic, revisionist, spaghetti, acid, whatever — that he admits to having committed to memory the lyrics of “Just Blew in From the Windy City” in the Doris Day–starring, Western-adjacent 1953 musical Calamity Jane.
That’s kind of endearing. He adds that, even as an obsessive watcher of Westerns from childhood on,
The problem is historically, more often than not, we’d be shown a really narrow viewpoint of what Westerns are. . . . I never learned anything about Stagecoach Mary or Gertrude Smith. . . . I never learned anything about all of these amazing people of color.
The big noise about The Harder They Fall is its terrific cast of black actors in all the lead roles, playing a mix of real and imagined characters in a totally fictional revenge story. There’s outlaw Rufus Buck (the ever-gorgeous Idris Elba) heading up a ruthless gang of bank robbers, including Gertrude “Treacherous Trudy” Smith (Regina King) and gunslinger Cherokee Bill (LaKeith Stanfield), pitted against cowboy Nat Love (Jonathan Majors) and his rival gang that only steals from thieves, including sharpshooter Bill Pickett (Edi Gathegi) and boastful quick-draw ace Jim Beckwourth (RJ Cyler).
Nat’s lover, the saloon-keeper Mary Fields, aka Stagecoach Mary (Zazie Beetz), joins forces with him in trying to take down Rufus Buck’s gang, as does the first black deputy marshal west of the Mississippi, Bass Reeves (Delroy Lindo), in a touchy alliance.
Of course, in many cases, Samuel is only using the names of certain historical figures and attaching them to characters that are entirely different from what they were in life, and who actually lived in varying periods of the nineteenth-century West. Nat Love was a cowboy and noted marksman whose many adventurous exploits gave him legendary status. Stagecoach Mary was the United States’ first black female mail carrier — a daring and dangerous occupation in the Wild West. Jim Beckwourth was an explorer and fur trapper who was called “Bloody Arm” because of his fighting skills. Bill Pickett was a cowboy who became a celebrated rodeo stunt rider and Wild West show performer, winding up in the ProRodeo Hall of Fame. And the character Cuffee , portrayed in this film by Danielle Deadwyler as a diminutive but highly capable bouncer at Stagecoach Mary’s saloon, who passes as a man but whose gender becomes a matter of speculation later, is based on Cathay Williams, the only documented woman to have served in the all-male US Army of the nineteenth century, posing as a man named William Cathay.
Rufus Buck really did have an ultraviolent gang, though, and Bass Reeves was actually the formidable first black US marshal in the West. Of course, there’s no requirement in Westerns to be true to history — far from it. The first Western mythologizers, tall-tale tellers, and just plain liars were the Westerners themselves, many of whom were determined to make a good story out of their adventures — and maybe a good living, too.
You think Wyatt Earp was always telling the truth when he was palling around with Hollywood people in the silent era, trying to sell his story? He probably gave his account of the gunfight at the OK Corral so many different ways, even he couldn’t remember what really went down. When director John Ford used to brag that he based his beautiful staging of the famous shootout in My Darling Clementine (1946) on the story he got from Wyatt Earp himself, you don’t doubt it, though it’s quite contrary to the more factual historical description. For starters, the gunfight didn’t even happen in, or particularly near, the OK Corral. It was several streets away.
The plot of The Harder They Fall gives a lot of showy roles to the hugely talented and charismatic cast. It’s basically about how scary Rufus Buck kills the parents of ten-year-old Nat Love out of an intense motivation that is only revealed later. Buck cuts a cross into the boy’s forehead so he’ll recognize the adult Nat when he inevitably comes for him. Love grows up to be an outlaw himself, with a rival gang and, naturally enough, an obsessive quest for vengeance. There’s more — but really, Westerns don’t need a lot of plot. Straight revenge will do it.
Personally, I like Westerns, and I like revenge plots, and I like Idris Elba, Jonathan Majors, and LaKeith Stanfield — all cinematic crushes of mine. Sadly, I don’t have many crushes among the ranks of living actors, because, wow, what a bleak and boring film era this is! (As I may have mentioned on occasion.) Three in one movie is a rare jackpot.
This made me tolerant of the weaker interludes in The Harder They Fall, which is by no means the landmark Western that Netflix VP of original film Tendo Nakenda claims it’s going to be in order to justify its slick production values and $90 million budget:
Our ambition is for it to be one of the great movies of all time. Not one of the great Black films of all time. Not one of the great Black Westerns of all time. We might not reach those heights, but we should be thinking The Godfather in terms of its import and ability to transcend the genre.
Really, it’s a warning sign whenever some suit starts talking about transcending genres. The Harder They Fall is a hit on Netflix, but mainly because it’s brash, goofy entertainment with a lot of flashy bloodshed and some arresting music performed by Jay-Z, Kid Cudi, Seal, Alice Smith, and CeeLo Green thrown in. This is the kind of film that starts off with freeze frames when somebody gets shot or punched hard and flies backward, so you can dwell on their pinwheeling arms and full liftoff from the floor. That’s not transcendent — by now, that’s as corny and old hat as film entertainment gets. But we still like it.
It’s clear that director Samuel’s longing is to make a bloody genre romp mostly reliant on Spaghetti Western–style ultraviolence and humorous flourishes, with race deployed as an additional point of defiant pleasure. When Trudy Smith, a sharp dresser and fearless killer who smiles mockingly at all threats, stops a train by positioning herself on horseback right across the track, and the white engineer comes out yelling, “What are you doing, you stupid ni—,” she shoots him, of course.
“He could have been about to say ‘nincompoop,’” says Cherokee Bill, amused.
“Well, we ain’t nincompoops,” she retorts.
Perhaps it’s not possible to make a contemporary Western, given the genre’s ideologically terrible underpinnings, that is sufficiently revisionist to address all the pertinent concerns about representation. At a certain point, it becomes a documentary, or a serious drama, not an action-oriented entertainment about various individuals and groups fighting over the contested terrain of the American frontier, representing wild lawlessness vs. tamed lawfulness, with the uneasy gray area in between that is usually where the hero/antihero stands.
Jeymes Samuel seems to be testing out whether it’s too late to get in on a genre he loved, one that was old when he was born and has never been too racially inclusive in a non-vile way. So far, the response to his film seems to indicate that people are willing to give him his chance — and give the updated Western at least one more try.