Reviewed by Stacey Yvonne:
The Harder They Fall is a new western for the modern age brought to you by Jeymes Samuel. Typically a musician, Seal is his brother, Samuel has a deep love for the wild wild west and the Black cow folk that is often forgotten and erased from the narrative. During the opening of the movie, there’s a placard that says “Although these stories are fiction the people were real”.
I was able to attend the premiere and shirts were given out with a telling quote from Black scholar and historian Lerone Bennett Jr. from Ebony magazine in 1984:
“In American history, as in American life, Black Americans are invisible presences. They are not seen, not because of their absence but because of the presence of a myth that prepares and requires their absence. The myth of absence, which expresses this idea and intention, operates not by misinterpretation and slander but by silence and exclusion”
The longer quote goes on to talk about how erasing Black actors from the scenes they played changes the color of the past and controls the perceptions and actions in the present. It’s for these reasons that vintage Hollywood remains unrelatable to anyone but white audiences. When people of color were shown it’s either in a derogatory manner or something to do with slavery and racism. It’s why DW Griffith is openly celebrated and Birth of a Nation is taught in schools and yet Black, Latinx, Asian, and other POC headliners of their time were lost to history.
Samuels approximation of negro westerns is done through the filter of modern-day hip hop and soul. The colors are bright and the Black skin of all shades glistens as it fills up the screen. This is not to say that the movie resembles what would have been a Black western, but more that it showcases the evolution of Black westerns had they been as ubiquitous as their white counterparts. I akin it to the Coen brother’s The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. A cowboy anthem through and through, there’s a touch of modernity that allows the piece to be quirky and irreverent while at the same time thought-provoking. This is what The Harder They Fall accomplishes, only much Blacker.
The story revolves around two posses; The Love Gang and the Buck Gang. Nat Love (Jonathan Majors) has a long-held vendetta against the previously incarcerated Rufus Buck. The best of new Black talent is showcased, Atlanta’s Zazie Beetz and LaKeith Stanfield (Judas and the Black Messiah) along with seasoned, iconic veterans like Delroy Lindo and Regina King. Everyone is having a blast and it shows onscreen. Jonathan Majors portrays Nat Love with uncanny intimacy and Love. He’s not some f*ck cowboy, he’s a lover with a heart of gold that’s been tarnished by the horrors of his youth. His protagonist is empathetic and you root for him instantly. Idris Elba’s Nat Buck is also inspired. Playing a man who has been told for far too long he was bad and so he chose to be it. He has a dream, but the bridges he’s burned getting it to come together may also be his undoing.
Though the stories for this particular narrative are fiction, The Harder They Fall pays tribute to these undercelebrated Black legends.
I mentioned Samuel’s musical roots because the film moves with rhythmic pacing. It’s easy to see the influences of Samuel and producer Jay-Z in everything from the soundtrack to the score. The movie is fast where it needs to be fast and evenly paced for more contemplative moments. Star Jonathan Majors sings a soulful hymn in a rich baritone directly down the barrel before preparing to go into battle and the moment is as powerful and intimate as the thrilling gunfights throughout. There’s something to be said about the fact that most of the production and behind the camera crew were Black. Understanding wardrobe, lighting, and how to enhance Black bodies was key in bringing authenticity to the setting. The Harder They Fall is not a stuffy western biopic, but it’s a splashy reimagining that’s so captivating it’s nearly interactive. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll swoon, you’ll applaud and through that adulation, these forgotten names are rebirthed.
The Harder They Fall is a raucous, clever, and beautiful film. It’s as entertaining as it is important and will be in Theaters October 22nd and on Netflix November 3rd.
Pull Quote: This is not to say that the movie resembles what would have been a Black western, but more that it showcases the evolution of Black westerns had they been as ubiquitous as their white counterparts.