Jeymes Samuel's “The Harder They Fall” is an absolute riot from start to finish. Co-written, directed and scored by Samuel, this revisionist Western soars with energy, style and Blackness with one of the greatest casts ever assembled possibly since “Dune.”
As the opening scrawl explains, this movie tells an inherently fictional story, but with an exceptionally star-studded cast of Black cowboys, outlaws, lawmen and gunslingers that existed in real life. It reads: “While the events of this story are fictional…These. People. Existed.”
By 1896, there were about 35,000 cowboys across the United States. Over 9,000 of them were Black, including outlaw Nat Love, played by Jonathan Majors. Set in 1876, “The Harder They Fall” focuses on Love and the Nat Love Gang, who rob other outlaws instead of banks and stagecoaches. They plan to retire until Love gets wind that his nemesis, Rufus Buck, played by Idris Elba, is being broken out of prison and pardoned for all his heinous crimes by the government. After teaming up with Marshal Bass Reeves, played by Delroy Lindo, he sends Nat Love, Stagecoach Mary, played by Zazie Beetz, sharpshooter Jim Beckwourth, played by RJ Cyler, and gunslinger Bill Pickett, played by Edi Gathegi, on a violent collision course with Buck, cutthroat second-in-command Trudy Smith, played by Regina King, and sly Cherokee Bill, played by Lakeith Stanfield, when Buck ruthlessly takes control of the Black-run town of Douglastown. This revisionist Western is equal parts revenge story and hilarious ensemble comedy.
The style-over story vision is refreshing because it gives a meaningful voice to those rarely heard. By putting these historical Black cowboys and outlaws into a delightfully bloody, energetic contemporary western, the audience gets to see how these cowboys lived and how thriving Black communities would be affected by them, albeit in a fictional manner.
To quote cast member Danielle Deadwyler, who portrays Cuffie, one of Stagecoach Mary’s bodyguards, “Representation is the invitation to dig deeper into the culture.” Deadwyler is absolutely right. Seeing these historical figures come to life in today’s world through the optics of modernity is breathtaking. Audiences have seen John Wayne and Clint Eastwood rule the western genre with their cowboy characters for decades, but this movie offers something different.
“The Harder They Fall” suggests that it is time to see the genre through a Black lens. It aims high and hits its mark perfectly.
The cast is more than up for the challenge with Majors once again proving his leading man status after the critically acclaimed “Lovecraft Country” and Zazie Beetz shutting down that she is anything but a damsel in distress as Stagecoach Mary. There are so many standouts to name in this film, but everyone embodies their roles to a t. Veteran actor Idris Elba effortlessly plays antagonist Rufus Buck with real bravura and surprising emotion. Seriously, this cast is too cool for school.
“The Harder They Fall” subverts the western conventions in dynamic, satisfying ways. Through this, these historical figures are given their time in the sun-soaked and blood-drenched spotlight of cinematic history. The camerawork is electric, harkening back to the Spaghetti westerns of old without ever feeling pandering. Every scene is perfectly tuned to Samuel’s extravagant, Morricone-like score that comes across like a Jay-Z track (who, unironically, produced the movie). The violence is also devilishly depicted with intensity throughout. It’s a lot of fun and has a great story to boot.
I’m so glad I got to see this film in a theater because the score and unrestrained ferocity of it was such a blast. You can see it in theaters or on Netflix today.