When Americans tell stories of the Old West, there’s typically a common thread running through them and it’s very white and heroic. With films like 3:10 to Yuma (1957) or True Grit (1969), The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966) or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), the Old West might seem rather uniform in palette culturally and ethically. The truth, however, is murkier than what we learn in our history books, as nothing is ever as clear as “white hat” or “black hat,” and little was ever simple. Most frustrating is the pervasive erasure of contributions to the Old West and beyond by groups marginalized by race or gender. We’ve got dozens of Caucasian westerns and too few stories placing any others at the forefront and center. Enter co-writer/director Jeymes Samuel (They Die by Dawn) and his fictionalized version of real frontierspeople clashing over what’s theirs in The Harder They Fall, a western told entirely from the perspective of the Black community. Using an anachronistic presentation, The Harder They Fall is as much an action romp from a stellar ensemble cast as it is an exploration of generational trauma which continues to echo to today.
Outlaw Nate Love (Jonathan Majors) is a little different from the rest wanted by the law for two reasons: (1) he and his gang only steal from other gangs and (2) he’s keenly focused on dismantling the individuals who used to ride with Rufus Buck (Idris Elba). Upon learning that believed-to-be incarcerated Buck is about to catch a case of freedom, Love saddles up to take on and take out Buck with extreme prejudice. But to take on Buck means to take on “Treacherous Trudy” Smith (Regina King), Cherokee Bill LaKeith Stanfield), and the rest of Buck’s loyal gang holed up in Redwood City, California. Vengeance is in the air and it will come down with a righteous fury.
Growing up, there were three westerns I would watch willingly: Young Guns II (1990), Tombstone (1993), and Posse (1993). Of the three films, only two had stories based on real characters, but Posse never felt false by any measure. The characters were, in my young mind, no different than those of the other two, except that they came from different backgrounds and their struggles formed from a different place of pain. But, if pressed, I couldn’t tell you another film set in the Old West with characters like those in director/actor Mario Van Peebles’s film. That is, not until Samuel entered the picture. With the announcement of The Harder They Fall, a film whose cast is enough to jump off the couch with joy, I discovered that this would be Samuel’s second film with the first being 2013’s They Die by Dawn, a 51-minute film featuring almost all the same characters but under different circumstances. Having seen Dawn ahead of Fall, I presumed that Fall would be like a longer version of Dawn, filled out in the areas which needed filling, upping the action due to an increased budget, and losing some of that indie feel. For the most part, I was wrong and I couldn’t be happier about it. Not only is Fall its own film, lacking any tether to its predecessor, but it loses none of what made Dawn feel special: pushing character and story over action. It’s because of this that Fall succeeds in being a film that you’ll want to revisit over and over, even when all of its secrets are spilled like blood in the dirt. The revelations will still carry weight, you’ll just be more open to their greater context.
In the most spoiler-free way, what does that mean?
It means that you’ll notice the modern notes of the music a little more against the Old West backdrop. Given that Samuel is an avid music fan and Fall is co-produced with Shawn Carter, a.k.a. Jay-Z, a certain amount of anachronism would make sense if all the creatives wanted to do was try to lure in modern audiences, hoping the sounds of today would help the story of yesteryear go down a tad easier. Here’s the thing, though, the story itself is based in generational trauma, much like the music itself. Why is Buck in Redwood City? He’s trying to build a community for Black people to be save in post-Emancipation. Is he willing to kill for it? Do unspeakable things for it? Yes. Is he doing it in order to protect and prevent further torment unto his people? Yes. Why is Love going after Buck? Simply put: Buck committed a sin that cannot be forgiven with time and distance. Love is consumed by the pain Buck has caused and cannot conceive of peace until that man is no more. Except, in seeking to stop Buck from causing additional pain, Love took up a lifestyle that, itself, indulges in pain. That both men see violence as a justifiable means makes them not so separated by ethos and less likely to prevent the cycle of trauma from stopping. Doesn’t matter how loyal their respective gangs are (and they are, mutual admiration abounds within each group), but the future they each seek to create only sullies more souls, only tramples more hearts, only creates more loss. With the music providing the backbeat to Fall, you can almost see the past and present intertwine until they are one and the same.
Don’t take this to mean that Fall is a dour affair. Far from it. While there are necessary dramatic moments, the script from Samuel and Boaz Yakin (No You See Me) takes full advantage of its ensemble cast generating genuine laughs from a combination of perfectly delivered lines and heighten situations, as well as the conveyance of weight via simple gestures or, in the case of Elba, none at all. In the first bit of marketing for Fall, audiences are shown the “jail break” of Buck by Smith and Bill. It’s an exciting sequence, most of which is kept hidden from the public until the final picture, and it showcases the differing personalities of Buck’s gang versus Love’s. Smith will murder you for using any word that starts with “n” while Bill will opt for any peaceful solution but will offer a deadly rebuttal if denied. There’s a give-and-take between the actors and the way they work the room that’s at once energizing and terrifying. Another thing we don’t see: in the moment before Buck is freed, how Smith places her hand gently on the iron safe holding Buck, as if feeling for a heartbeat. With one small touch, notable actor/director King conveys the significance of Buck to Smith, making what comes next all the devastating in its cruelty. By comparison, the members of Love’s gang are less bound by a shared belief and more for what Love has done for them. An apt comparison is that they are akin to Billy the Kid’s Regulators in the Young Guns films, righting wrongs with a thunder clap from a pistol or long gun out of a sense of justice. Samuel may put the emphasis on the Love vs. Buck conflict, but Majors and Elba are not necessarily center stage. There 10 ten names which adorn the poster for this film and each one is clearly written, clearly defined, and whose fate will be cheered or mourned in equal measure.
A film like The Harder They Fall deserves a deeper analysis than what you’ll receive here and that’s out of a dire need to not divulge some of the secrets within. Sadly, as Netflix rarely releases their originals on physical media (meaning there will not be a home release), unless something odd happens, this review will be all that will be spoken of on the film, the performances, and the themes. I would be remiss, however, if not to mention the fantastic production design and costumes from Martin Whist (Bad Times at the El Royale) and Antoinette Messam (Creed), respectively, whose work convey the majesty of a community often presented as derelict, if presented at all. The two main towns that the story takes place in are vibrant and alive, filled with businesses and townspeople with the same hopes and dreams that we’ve seen in other Old West pictures. There’s a grace present that’s rarely been shown before, which is a crime upon itself, and it’s hard not to take stock of all that audiences have never seen because it would mean also shedding light on the way in which the Black community has persistently been persecuted, driven from one ghetto to another, throughout the history of America. The Harder They Fall speaks not just to the legend of unknown gunslingers, but of a forgotten rich history that was pushed aside to make way for something a little more white and average.
Admittedly The Harder They Fall is nothing that should be touted as truth. That Zazie Beetz, incredible actor that she is, plays Stagecoach Mary, a large dark-skinned Black woman, speaks to the kind of audience Fall is for and the kind of story the film is telling. This is where the Young Guns of it all comes in. This is a Hip-Hop version of history, replete with the lyrical high and lows that accompany delicious beats. I’m a little disappointed that not a single Erykah Badu track is present (she played Mary in Dawn), but that’s the only thing that will as the rest of the songs, like the performances and accompanying action, will leave you tapping your toes. Credit where credit is due: watching two souls fight to the death, warriors at their side, for their version of justice shouldn’t be quite this poignant or resonant. But in an era where we also have Warriors telling the story of Asian immigrants in San Francisco in a similar period, who’s to say what histories remain in the shadows or what fictitious vendettas lay finished? What we do know for sure is if we’re unwilling to make different choices, our fight for peace is like screwing for virginity (thanks, George Carlin) and that any story that ends in blood isn’t truly over.
In select theaters October 22nd, 2021.
Available for streaming on Netflix November 3rd, 2021.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.