‘The Harder They Fall’ Is The Black Western You Didn’t Know You Needed – Review
Jeymes Samuel’s The Harder They Fall reinvents Western films through the Black lens with an all-star Black ensemble cast consisting of Jonathan Majors, Idris Elba, Zazie Beetz, Regina King, Delroy Lindo, LaKeith Stanfield, RJ Cyler, Danielle Deadwyler, Edi Gathegi, Damon Wayans Jr. and Deon Cole. Samuel’s vision brings some of Hollywood’s brightest stars and Netflix audiences all over into a world where lawlessness and revenge reign supreme.
The film introduces us to a young Nat Love (Majors) witnessing the death of his parents by a mysterious outlaw. This outlaw leaves his mark on Nat emotionally and physically by carving a cross on his forehead. Fast forward many years and the traumatized young man grows up to be a vigilante. News of the release of Rufus Buck (Elba), the man who killed Nat’s parents, reaches him causing him to reassemble his crew (Cyler, Gathegi, Beetz and Deadwyler) for a mission for revenge–pitting Nat’s crew against Rufus’s (King and Stanfield).
Westerns tend to follow a formula that tells a narrative about a loner or wanderer’s place in society, their connection to love and an examination of the perilous relationship of law and community. All of these are analyzed through the conflict between the protagonist (Nat the wandering vigilante) and the antagonist (Rufus the man with a vision for America). The Harder They Fall follows a similar plot structure but makes it Black.
It may be hard to imagine an American Western that features an all-Black cast, but the characters featured are based on actual people. Historians state that one in every four cowboys was Black, Nat Love included. However, when history is written by those in power, those without it tend to be written unfavourably or not written about at all. So, it becomes incredibly impactful to have a genre feature Black characters outside of tropes, while maintaining a firm grasp on the realities of race in that time.
The fantasy is made possible through rich set design, beautifully made costumes, solid action scenes and strong acting. Majors and Elba give well-rounded and emotional performances, which doesn’t come as a surprise when you review their stellar acting history. Additional standouts are King as Trudy Smith and Cyler as Jim Beckwourth. The Oscar-winning King commands your attention and continues to show off why you don’t want to be on the other end of her punches in each action scene. Cyler’s comedic timing brings in moments of levity that pair like fine wine to a great dish which is the more emotionally-charged members of the cast.
What happens behind the scenes is just as important as the action that takes place on camera. Beyond Samuel’s influence, rapper, record executive, and media proprietor Shawn Carter, a.k.a. Jay-Z produced the film. This explains the stellar movie soundtrack featuring songs by Mr. Carter himself, Lauryn Hill, and Samuel’s older brother, Seal. While the set, costumes and acting transport you to the wild, wild west, the hip-hop-influenced tracks will accompany you for the ride.
While we love genres being subverted to include everyone, unfortunately, we have to talk about the colorist elephant in the room when we talk about The Harder They Fall. Remember when I said that these characters were based on real people? Well, Mary Fields, a.k.a. Stagecoach Mary, was a real person. She was the first Black woman star-route mail carrier, a respected public figure, and was a dark-skinned, plus-size Black woman.
That last point is important because Zazie Beetz’s casting as Stagecoach Mary should raise an eyebrow, but Samuel’s reasoning behind casting her should raise both of them. Needless to say, it’s disappointing to see a lost opportunity for a dark-skinned, plus-size actress to have claimed such a pivotal role. Beetz is talented, but so are other actresses who could’ve been better suited for the role of Stagecoach Mary. These conversations are ongoing and lighter-skinned actors (like Zendaya and Amandla Stenberg) have spoken out about the harsh, colorist realities of the industry and about using their privilege as lighter-skinned actresses to bring more attention to colorism in casting. Maybe it’s wishful thinking to believe that studios will think critically about colorism when it comes to casting, but they should.
Still, The Harder They Fall serves a purpose and that purpose is to highlight how Black people can and should be a part of all movie genres. These narratives add a layer of depth that wouldn’t have been within a potentially exhausting and “traditional” version of a western film. More doors have been opened for new films with all-Black starring casts in a plethora of genres. The Harder They Fall is an example of the good that comes from challenging industry norms. Let’s just hope that studios will keep proper casting in mind when they continue to produce films like this.