Written by Patrick Hao
The goal of Jeymes Samuel’s The Harder They Fall is stated in its opening title cards. “While the events of this story are fictional… These. People. Existed.” This platitude should be a warning to anyone who starts this slick new Netflix release of just how empty and meaningless this genre exercise is.
The sentiment is clear. It is well known that the legends of the Old West have been dominated by stories of white people, despite the fact that in reality there were many people of color who have enough stories, heroics, and escapades that would put them in line with Billy the Kid, Wyatt Earp, and folk heroes. However, Samuel tries to assemble some of these characters – Nat Love, Rufus Buck, Stagecoach Mary, Bass Reeves, Cherokee Bill, and several others – into one overstuffed movie like they were in Joss Whedon’s The Justice League. It is unclear, besides representation of people not normally seen in westerns, exactly what Samuel intended to do with these characters based on the story he tells.
That story attempts to be epic in scale like a Sergio Leone spaghetti western revolving around Nat Love (Jonathan Majors), a bandit who is seeking revenge for the killer of his family, Rufus Black (Idris Elba). The film jumps between two gangs led by each. In Nat’s gang, there is sharpshooter Bill Pickett (Edi Gathegi), quick draw gunman Jim Beckwourth (RJ Cyler), and saloon owner Stagecoach Mary (Zazie Beetz). They are later joined by a Wyatt Earp-esque lawman Bass Reeves (Delroy Lindo). For Rufus Black’s gang, there is the sadistic Trudy Smith (Regina King) and the mysterious Cherokee Bill (Lakeith Stanfield). Obviously, everything is leading up to a final shootout between these gangs.
To have all these characters in one film ultimately defeats the purpose of Samuel’s opening mantra. Those names existed for people, but the thinness of each character points to the fact that the people on screen have never existed. What use does this amazing cast portraying these characters do for the legends of these real-life people? Rather than highlight their exploits, this fictional mishmash simply drowns them in a sea of vacuous gunfire.
So, the question becomes, does this movie exist simply to give us a representation of black people in a western? The town that the film takes place in is entirely black-owned and populated by only black people. That is a noble effort but seemingly puts representation as the goal upfront rather than simply making a good western. It is unclear from this film how much Jeymes Samuel even likes westerns. Sure, there is the stylized cowboy dialogue and the classic old west posturing, but much of the film feels like a pastiche of a pastiche. This is less Quentin Tarantino doing Sam Peckinpah and more Samuel doing Tarantino doing Peckinpah. And this makes sense because Samuel is a DJ whose work is primarily based around the idea of remixing. However, it seems clear that Samuel loves the aesthetics over the genre of movies itself.
And the film is dominated by overwhelming aesthetics as if we were on the set of a GQ cover shoot as opposed to an actual movie. The costumes are well-tailored, colorful, and the cast looks great wearing the attires. Yet, there is no dust or dirt in the film, nor texture to the sets. This leads to flat set pieces and a two-dimensional effect every time characters move across the screen, deflating any sense of cool or tension that Samuel was trying to engender. To have a $90 million budget and look this bad is embarrassing. Just as Samuel does not have a handle on the visuals of the film, he is a bad actor director as well. With such a large cast, everyone feels like they were in a different film. While Majors is trying to embody a classic Western silent type – a cross between Eastwood and Will Rogers – he is surrounded by quirky characters rather than characters with quirks. The tonal whiplash is as disorientating as the intentions of the film.
Once again, I come back to the question of why this film was made? Netflix is certainly marketing this film as a high level of prestige. Westerns have been a genre of superficial pleasure – action, suspense, shootouts, bank robberies – that has been used as a vehicle to both construct and demystify the story of America. The film’s prestige is stemming from the fact that it is about Black characters set in this genre but has nothing to say about it. Redwood City, the town that centers the film, can be seen as utopic for black folks – an entirely black town with black-owned businesses, banks, and saloons. Yet, it seems weird that Samuel chooses to say nothing about this place, a year removed from everyone fiercely googling Tulsa Race Riots. There is still a warring faction of bandits that leads to the town riddled with bullet holes and virtuous lawmen.
I could not help but to think of two other black westerns throughout this one: Mario Van Peebles’ Posse and John Singleton’s Rosewood. Both films were made in the aftermath of the Rodney King verdict and the LA riots. Both films seem to be in direct conversation with the times that they were made, both having the superficial pleasures of the Western genre while also being smart meditations on the black people’s space in the American Western mythos. Rosewood in particular is about a wholly populated black town that was driven apart by white supremacists.
The Harder They Fall is seemingly divorced from any relevant conversation. Sure, it wants to believe that it says something by simply existing, but art should be more than just existing. Unfortunately, The Harder They Fall succeeded in its goal. It simply exists.
The Harder They Fall Trailer