by Tim Gordon
A group of legendary real-life Black cowboys and Old West figures team up and shoot it out in writer/director Jeymes Samuels’ uber-stylish and tremendously entertaining western, The Harder They Fall.
Samuels wastes little time establishing the foundation of his story, immediately letting us witness the slaying of a family and the road to retribution, in the opening sequence of the film. The story is straightforward, introducing us to Nat Love (Jonathan Majors) and his associates, “Stagecoach Mary” Fields (Zazie Beetz), Wild Bill Pickett (Edi Gathegi), and Jim Beckworth (RJ Cyler). The story is set in motion when members of the Nat Love Gang rob the Crimson Hoods, stealing $25,000 dollars belonging to the infamous outlaw Rufus Buck (Idris Elba).
In one of the most stylish and clever film introductions of the year, we meet Buck’s gang, led by Trudy Smith (Regina King) and Cherokee Bill (LaKeith Stanfield) who break him out from captivity. Samuels’ blend of audacity, humor, and violence, in addition to the thunderous music score, makes this one of the most memorable scenes in any recent Western. Soon Love, and his crew, now teaming with sheriff Bass Reeves (Delroy Lindo) and Fields’ confidant, Cuffie (Danielle Deadwyler) to bring down Buck and his gang.
Samuels is no stranger to this subject matter, directing a short, They Die By Night, back in 2011 using many of the same characters for that short film. A huge fan of Westerns, Samuels uses real legendary Black figures in this fictional story that is absent the White gaze and is free of the issue of race to drive its narrative.
In addition, Samuels, who also scored the film, infuses it with Afro-Caribbean and reggae tracks making it sound unlike any Western we’ve ever experienced. Rock and Roll Hall of Famer and film producer, Jay-Z debuts two original songs on the film, which also includes artists such as Lauryn Hill, Fela Kuti, Kid Cudi, Seal, CeeLo Green, Jadakiss, Conway The Machine, Samuels, and a host of others.
Traditional Westerns have always featured the complicated hero facing down some unscrupulous character, with the story usually featuring racist troupes (fighting the Indians, black characters usually subservient, serving as sidekicks or found deep in the background). Celebrated Westerns such as The Searchers, Stagecoach, They Wore A Yellow Ribbon, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and so many of the other stories from Hollywood’s Golden Era treated Black characters as afterthoughts. Even Mario Van Peebles’ Posse had his crew trying to extricate themselves from the grip of a White oppressor.
The cast is top-notch and each one plays their part perfectly like a wonderful cinematic orchestra with not one note falling flat or out of place. Majors, Elba, King, Stanfield, Lindo, Cyler, and Deadwyler are extremely well-cast and highly effective. It is also worth noting that each of the romantic pairings included in the story is different but still radiant with love – in their own ways.
Samuel’s stylized and gritty Western take is one that should be replicated to begin to balance the vast narrative of Black absence in the Old West. Van Peebles’ Posse, Buck and the Preacher, Thomasine and Bushrod, and Bill Cosby’s Man and Boy are just a small sample size of Westerns in the modern era. Beautifully shot and scored, The Harder They Fall is a lush, proud, defiant take on the Western genre and it is one that is severely needed.