“While the events of this story are fictional… These. People. Existed.”
Jeymes Samuel’s Black-centric star-studded Western The Harder They Fall opens on that defiant, creatively flexible note. Every major character in Samuel’s bloated style-over-story directorial debut borrows their name from a historic African-American cowboy or outlaw. By putting them in a bloody, slick spaghetti Western, Samuel can take the liberty to remake their legends in his image, for a diverse contemporary epic.
It’s easy to wholly praise The Harder They Fall on the grounds of representation, but the actual merits of that benchmark aren’t obvious, given the historical competition. Black Westerns began with Richard C. Kahn’s 1930s films, then took off during the 1970s alongside Blaxploitation, with films like Buck and the Preacher and Thomasine & Bushrod. In the 1990s, they found new avenues, like Rosewood. The Harder They Fall takes its initial cue from Mario Van Peebles’ Posse, a 1993 precursor Black ensemble Western starring Blair Underwood, Tiny Lester, and Pam Grier. Like Posse, The Harder They Fall centers on an outlaw son seeking revenge for his slain preacher father.
Samuel’s version of the story revolves around Nat Love (Jonathan Majors), a bandit leader with a prominent cross carved in his forehead by the man who murdered his father. Love is out for a solo revenge, but he can’t fully shake his loyal gang, including tranquil Bill Pickett (Edi Gathegi), brazen Stagecoach Mary (Zazie Beetz), quick-draw expert Jim Beckworth (RJ Cyler), and unflinching Cuffee (Danielle Deadwyler), along with famed lawman Bass Reeves (Delroy Lindo). The killer, the notorious Rufus Buck (Idris Elba), has his own hardened crew to match: ruthless Trudy Smith (Regina King) and sly Cherokee Bill (LaKeith Stanfield) back his efforts to control a town, supposedly to protect the Black residents he keeps under his thumb.
Apart from the star-studded ensemble, with a few of the actors totally miscast, this film is only groundbreaking in the sense that it was designed for streaming. Its aesthetics are more obtrusively loud than stylish or gaudy. Its story is too slight to back up the overlong runtime. The natural Western landscape, rendered artificially, lacks vastness. Samuel’s The Harder They Fall doesn’t rise to the epic scale of its spaghetti and Blaxploitation influences: The genre has never felt so small and streaming-friendly as it does in this tawdry misadventure.
While versions of these larger-than-life figures did exist, it’s unclear what story Samuel wants to tell about them. Few of these figures are well-written. No one’s likely to leave this romp knowing more about the historical Buck, Love, or Mary. This is a fantastical reimagining, but it’s unclear what legend Samuel is trying to create. Does the mere sight of Black folks on the screen serve as his thesis? Is the film purely entertainment, or does it have a message? Samuel winds up caught between that surface, and any deeper ideas he may have in mind.
He halfway tries to imbue The Harder They Fall with romance: Nat Love and Stagecoach Mary are a tempestuous item. He carries his dead mother’s wedding ring around, looking for a chance to proposing to Mary. But none of the sensuality between these characters is remotely believable. Every note Beetz hits as the brooding Mary rings false, from her laughably cartoonish Southern drawl to her exaggerated strut. Majors plays Love as though he’s in a character study, relying on minute choices to build a personality. But in a movie bursting with big performances, his nuanced approach puts him in an altogether different film than his counterparts.
In fact, the only actor in this movie perfectly suited for a Western is Lindo, to the point where it’s a surprise that he’s never been in one before. He has the gravitas and frame of Gary Cooper. Part of that is by design: His character, Bass Reeves, represents the old school of Western lawmen. It makes sense for him to recall the genre’s classics while the younger actors bring a fresh, modern spin and Black cool to their archetypes. Samuel isn’t the first person to inject the genre with Black swagger: Will Smith did so with steampunk flair in Wild Wild West. But while these characters have individual verve, they don’t complement each other. Even with good rapport between King and Elba, or between Cyler and Deon Cole as Buck’s former ally Wiley Escoe, the writing provides few reasons why these disparate characters united under a single banner before the events of the film.
For instance, Buck’s bandits have assembled to create a “Promised Land” in the all-Black town of Redwood City. Its name closely resembles the real-life, predominantly Black Florida settlement at the center of John Singleton’s historical Black Western Rosewood, where white rioters massacred the affluent Black population. Samuel’s town is painted with opulent hues: vibrant pinks, lush reds, and verdant greens. Everything is Black-owned, from the homes and businesses to the government.
But apart from those aesthetics, Samuel doesn’t illuminate why this town is a promised land, apart from the presumed lack of white residents. It’s implied that Rufus has a vision for this settlement, and that he wants to stave off white interlopers and racial bloodshed. But he never fully offers his thesis, past demanding the residents pay a heavy tax for his protection. His Edenic dream appears to be an artifice, but it’s unclear whether he or his followers actually believe in it as anything more than a shakedown.
The aesthetics of The Harder They Fall look fake rather than stylish, and off-puttingly slick rather than fantastical. Redwood City is too clean, with nary a speck of dust or mud to add character. Costume designer Antoinette Messam uses a puzzling effect to age some of the clothing, such as hats and some jackets, and Buck’s striped prison garb. But her work looks fresh off a clothing rack rather than weathered or worn. The rendered night sky surrounding Redwood makes the landscape feel claustrophobic and fake, entrapping the town in a VFX snowglobe which shrinks its scale.
There’s copious blood from the dynamically shot slick gunfights. Samuel’s penchant for using freeze-frames to punctuate violent scenes recalls the similarly nervy work of Quentin Tarantino. Samuel mostly composed or remixed the music himself — he’s an established British musician under the stage name The Bullitts, and he soundtracks the action with perfect homages to Sergio Leone, mixed with modern hip-hop and reggae beats. (He also brings in his brother, musical artist Seal, to collaborate on and perform one number.) But these striking components of the film add few hints of tension or suspense to the narrative. Elba is particularly underused as the film’s primary villain: In the biggest gun fight between Redwood’s warring gangs, he watches from his office window.
The stakes required to conjure dramatic momentum often fight each other to gain recognition in the story. Love’s vengeance quest, Buck’s vague dream of a Black utopia, Reeves’ determination to arrest Buck, and half a dozen minor personal subplots all emerge and submerge throughout the film, but no particular arc is ever offered so much room to breathe that viewers have time to get invested in the outcome. By the time Samuel reveals the information that’s meant to help define these characters and their conflicts, the overloaded visuals and story have beaten any sense of meaningful human connection into oblivion.
The prospects of a Black Western with this much star power invited hopes of a paradigm shift that would allow more of these movies to be made, and fight the enduring, dangerous Western-based myth that America’s history was primarily white. These big productions promising change through representation often do invite us to focus on their importance, to the point where we backseat the actual quality of the movie. But Samuel isn’t interested in telling real people’s stories, choosing between glut and substance, or providing a worthwhile political or emotional conceit. And all those things are important for a film that’s out to make a difference.
Instead, he’s remade the Western not wholly in the image of Black folks, but in the image of a Netflix movie — a low-impact, high-prestige, easily digestible streaming project. Never has the Western genre looked so small and devoid of meaning. The Harder They Fall is a deliberate step forward for onscreen representation of historical Black figures. But it isn’t as good as it needs to be to make those names memorable to a country that’s forgotten them.
The Harder They Fall debuts in theaters on Oct. 22, and on Netflix Nov. 3.