“The Harder They Fall” offers a new vision of the Wild West
The opens the caption is too emphatic for standard punctuation. “Although the events of this story are fictional,” he states, “These. People. Existed. The statement is true to the extent that some of the characters in“ The Harder They Fall, ”the elegant Jeymes Samuel’s revenge western, share their names, if not many others, with actual historical figures. However, Mr. Samuel makes a more general point. The “people” of the legend are also the blacks who populated the Far West: Academic Katie Nodjimbadem estimates that one in four cowboys was actually black, but on the big screen, however, the proportion is much lower.
Every now and then a black actor has been famous enough to get a prominent role in a western. Trailblazers include Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, Danny Glover and Denzel Washington, who led the gang in Antoine Fuqua’s remake of “The Magnificent Seven” in 2016. Sometimes black and white actors come together as weird couples anti-racism, as in Mel Brooks’ comedy “Blazing Saddles” (1974), starring Cleavon Little and Gene Wilder, and Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained” (2012), starring Jamie Foxx and Christoph Waltz. Mario Van Peebles’ “Posse” (1993) was unusual in that it had a whole gang of former African-American Buffalo Soldiers, albeit with a token white member. Beyond that, you have to look long and hard to find a western in which a black actor does more than pour whiskey into a saloon.
Mr Samuel, a black British writer-director who works as a singer-songwriter and music producer under the name The Bullitts, shifts the balance slightly with his first feature film. Almost all of the characters in “The Harder They Fall” are played by a black actor, whether hero or villain. The main hero is Nat Love (Jonathan Majors). In the opening flashback sequence, his parents are murdered in cold blood by a ruthless bandit, Rufus Buck (Idris Elba), who then engraves a cross on Love’s forehead.
With a Luke Skywalker-meets-Harry-Potter story like this, it’s almost inevitable that Love will become an elite vigilante who roams the Old West with his gang, taking down wanted criminals. It’s also inevitable that his ultimate target will be Buck, so the film heads for a High Street showdown. On the one hand, there’s Buck and his loyal sidekicks, Cherokee Bill (LaKeith Stanfield) and Trudy Smith (Regina King). On the other, Love and his gang, including Bass Reeves (Delroy Lindo), and his former flame, Mary Fields (Zazie Beetz). In addition to the emphasis on African American characters, a radical part of “The Harder They Fall” is that women can fight alongside men.
Such radicalism is rarely expressed in dialogue. The story, co-authored by Mr. Samuel and Boaz Yakin, revolves around blood feuds, bank robberies, shootings and other Western staples, with race only mentioned a few times. Buck, no matter how evil, steals and extorts money to build a city that could be a “promised land” for former slaves. An old white train engineer gets two letters in the n word before being shot by Trudy. Throughout the remainder of the film, Mr. Samuel is content to let the cast make his political point, the fact that blacks have been sidelined in too many period dramas in America.
Instead of being a revisionist history lesson, “The Harder They Fall” is a roaring tribute to Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns, and, in particular, Mr. Tarantino’s postmodern action films, which are repeated in smart-alec legends (“Some Time Later”), bombastic monologues, bloody violence, cool and swaggering performances and the value of a well-chosen pop music album. Leaving banjos and harmonicas to collect dust, Mr. Samuel fills the soundtrack with funk, reggae and hip-hop: one of the film’s producers is Shawn Carter, better known as Jay-Z.
The only disappointing aspect of “The Harder They Fall” is that the lives and personalities of the real Nat Love, Bass Reeves, Rufus Buck, and Mary Fields were more interesting than the cartoonish versions featured here. Yet, if there is any justice, Mr. Samuel’s vibrant film will spark cinematic tales of their true stories and tales of many other black heroes and villains of the Old West. ■
“The Harder They Fall” hits Netflix November 3