Director: Jeymes Samuel
Stars: Jonathan Majors, Zazie Beetz, Regina King
Arriving on Netflix following a negligible cinema release, Jeymes Samuel’s warm and handsome western begins with a card acknowledging that the story it tells is not true, only to follow this with the affirmation that, nonetheless, “These. People. Existed.”
The western has always been the providence of white men. It has distorted history to mythologise their deeds just as it has used mythic language to interrogate their villainy. People of colour have been served less well, particularly those of the First Nations. For Black people however, the history of the western is notable for their eradication from the stage. Examples – especially from the classic period – are the exception, not the rule. And even through the revisionist era and up until recently, the western has remained, overwhelmingly, the province of white men. Even Tarantino’s high-profile Django Unchained retooled the classic Spaghetti western character as a knowing nod to his own appreciation for Blaxploitation cinema, turning it into something of a novelty gesture.
So Samuel’s pointed intertitle dresses his film as an attempt to begin redressing the balance.
With a phenomenally stacked cast, he has a witty and wild time taking up the task. Chiefly, this is the tale of two gangs shedding bullets in Texas. On the one hand we have Nat Love (Jonathan Majors), working out of a saloon with singer and hostess Mary Fields (Zazie Beetz). With a literal cross to bare on his forehead from a scarring childhood event, Love has a slow crusade of vengeance against Rufus Buck (Idris Elba); the man who killed his family. Buck is the leader of his own gang of bank robbers, incarcerated in Yuma until he is broken free in a train heist by loyal hands Trudy Smith (Regina King) and Cherokee Bill (Lakeith Stanfield). Sheriff Bass Reeves (Delroy Lindo) senses trouble coming from afar.
Showing clear affection for Sergio Leone and, yes, Quentin Tarantino, Samuel mounts this as an epic and operatic tale, grand in scale and divorced from the doldrums and dreariness of the real world. These people existed all right, but they never interacted in such ways, and never before for our sheer enjoyment like this.
The Harder The Fall doesn’t retool the myth of the west as much as it embraces the riches of storytelling. Samuel presents here. His scenes are stagy, with expanded time and too-clean (and gorgeous) sets and locations. If Wes Anderson ever rolled up his sleeves to make a western it might take place in rooms and thoroughfares this handsome, against skies this empty and majestic (but it’d never be this damned cool). These are deliberate stylistic choices that present the film as a wry and post-modern fantasy piece, one that celebrates the seldom-seen. Samuel encourages us to enjoy a good story being told. In short, he delights in the showmanship of his work.
The cast is great, all the way through. Beetz slinks and smoulders. Elba looks like he’s actively engaged in a part for the first time in a while. Stanfield… well, he doesn’t seem capable of presenting anything less than his best at all times. Beyond those big names, even the bit-parters and supporters carry their share of the water (Danielle Deadwyler bringing so much to Cuffee, for instance, that you’ll think she was all over the picture when she isn’t). The collective strength powers the movie through its running time. Even at 2 hours and twenty minutes, it is always eventful, always colourful, always asking of your attention. Pacing is on-point.
As the story progresses, Buck squeezes the townsfolk of Redwood for taxes to ensure security as the government comes to eradicate their claims to the territory. In the process, The Harder They Fall acknowledges how whites have historically leeched from and usurped Black cultures… and how the unscrupulous within said communities have manipulated these trends for their own personal gain. In this sense Buck is painted as a traitor to his own; another part of the problem. It also reflects on how the western swept the lives of these men and women out of sight of the cameras.
With his righteous quest for vengeance, Love and his crew are our ‘white hats’, so to speak. In his camp we find romanticism and idealism. Buck provides the tyranny and exploitation. The lines are easy to draw. This isn’t so much a ‘woke’ western as a traditional one with a revitalised cast drawn from an underused set of inspirations.
Still, Samuel has his fun along the way (see our introduction to Maysville (it’s a white town)) and his sense of flare is irresistible. The Harder They Fall provides glorious Black visibility in a space that has otherwise seemed disinterested in catering to inclusivity. Said visibility is powerful, and encouraging. And while the story treads familiar and traditional paths, it provides an invitation for greater diversity – and originality – to resuscitate a genre long thought on its knees. If this is the start of a new wave, I’m ready to ride it.
Massively entertaining, never less than gorgeous to look at, and with a soundtrack packed with bangers, this a huge coup for Netflix. Quite possibly the most fun you’ll have all year.