Netflix drama The Harder They Fall represents rambunctious, swaggering action-adventure set in the Old West but given something of a hip and happening look and feel thanks to a focus on Black characters inspired by historical figures, stylish craft contributions and inspired needle drops. It’s a solid effort from British singer-songwriter-producer Jeymes Samuel, also known as The Bullitts, and now a film industry multihyphenate.
Thankfully, it’s also a considerable improvement on his previous directorial effort, 2013’s They Die by Dawn, a somewhat stilted 50-minute work that revolved around many of the same characters but with a different roster of actors. With the likes of Jonathan Majors, Idris Elba, Regina King, Zazie Beetz, Delroy Lindo and LaKeith Stanfield in this cast, the film should generate substantially more buzz, and may gain traction as an awards contender so long as voters don’t dismiss it as too “genre” for serious consideration.
The Harder They Fall
The Bottom Line
Gallops along nicely.
Well in advance of its official premiere as the opening film for the BFI London Film Festival (it was also simultaneously broadcast in cinemas around the U.K.), The Harder They Fall piqued press interest enough to spawn articles about the real historical figures depicted in the film and broader pieces about the history of Black Westerns. But while it’s clear from the film that Samuel and his co-screenwriter and Hollywood script-puncher-upper-for-hire Boaz Yakin (Fresh, Now You See Me) are well versed in the cinematic traditions of Westerns, especially when it comes to the ways one can shoot gunfights, bank heists and train robberies, they’re not precious about historical accuracy.
Most of the film’s main characters — Rufus Buck (Elba), Nat Love (Majors), “Treacherous” Trudy Smith (King), “Stagecoach” Mary Fields (Beetz), “Cherokee” Bill (Stanfield) and Bass Reeves (Lindo) — were real living, breathing historical figures, but they lived in various times during the 19th century and most likely never met one another. Or, as an opening chyron puts it: “While the events of this story are fictional … These. People. Existed.” That percussive punctuation for emphasis augurs that the film will flirt a lot with anachronism and pop culture patois alike, winking to younger viewers. It’s a surprise they didn’t throw in the hand-clapping emoji (👏) after each full stop for good measure.
This jazz improvisational-style mashup of fact, legend and screenwriters’ whim starts with a traumatic act of murder, as unsettling as it is inexplicable. A family — father, mother and a young boy — settle down in their frontier homestead to enjoy a meal when in walks a sinister figure, seen only from behind but instantly recognizable to fans of The Wire, Marvel movies and promos for Sky TV in the U.K. as Idris Elba. The father begs the mysterious visitor to spare the lives of his wife and son, but the unwanted guest kills both the father and the mother. Lastly, while an accomplice with a distinctive tattoo holds the boy still, the visitor cuts a cross into his forehead.
Flash-forward to the film’s present day, sometime in the late 1800s, and the scarred little boy has grown up to be Nat Love, an outlaw and boss of the Nat Love gang who preys on other outlaws, not unlike Omar in The Wire. (As it happens, the late, great Michael K. Williams, who played Omar, also played Love in Samuel’s They Die by Dawn, and the film is dedicated to him as well as to British entertainment lawyer Richard Antwi in the end credits). Above all, Love is determined to track down the men who killed his parents, and after eliminating the tattooed figure early on, there’s only notorious armed robber Buck left to hunt down and kill.
Thereafter, the film basically switches back and forth between the two gangs as we are incrementally introduced to the other rootin’, tootin’ miscreants in varying shades of ruthless that make up each gang. On Team Rufus, there’s Buck’s right-hand woman, Trudy, apparently his romantic partner but, more significantly for the purposes of the film, a tough-as-rusty-nails lieutenant. Also reporting to Buck is Cherokee Bill, a laconic sharpshooter.
Love’s posse mirrors Buck’s in terms of prowess but has a slightly more diverse hiring policy given that two members are women, or at least one of them identifies as female — sultry saloonista Stagecoach Mary, who is also Nat’s main squeeze. The other, Cuffy (a delightful turn by Danielle Deadwyler), with her cross-dressing proclivities, is more ambiguous in terms of gender identity. There is no ambiguity, however, about Cuffy’s pugilistic skills and speed with a gun, which is why she manages the door at Mary’s saloon.
Once Love and his cohort get word that Buck is in Redwood City (a town apparently in Texas or Oklahoma, not California’s Bay Area; also, there is a distinct lack of redwood trees in the township), they move ever closer to the final showdown. Other outlaws who Love and Co. bring along or pick up on the way include Bill Pickett (Edi Gathegi), James Beckwourth (RJ Cyler), and eventually federal marshal Bass Reeves (Delroy Lindo, a little underused) — again, all of them based on historical figures.
Some viewers, particularly viewers of color — and it’s not for me, a white woman, to take this one on — may have issues with the fact that Samuel has taken all these interesting figures from history and used them just as names, creating a story around them that’s pretty distant from the actual recorded facts about the actual people. Apparently, for instance, Nat Love was no outlaw but a professional cowboy, born in slavery but once freed able to make a name for himself in the West thanks to his talent with horses, which helped him win competitions and gain fame. He went on to write an autobiography.
That story might have merited a film on its own, especially if it starred as talented cast as this film has. Instead, perhaps believing in all good faith that the best way to get people interested in Black history and to pay tribute to some of the Black people who were part of the Wild West and have been neglected by conventional accounts is to wildly distort the facts. By bending and buckling Love’s and Buck’s and all the rest of these folks’ stories, Samuel and his team have made something arguably a little less interesting, a classic revenge narrative in the tradition of True Grit (either version), The Great Silence (1968), New Jack City (1991) or Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus.
Or, if you will, this is film that becomes a weapon of fantasy revenge itself by appropriating history, in the same vein as Quentin Tarantino’s counterfactual works Django Unchained, Inglourious Basterds (one of whose producers, Lawrence Bender, is also a producer on Harder) or Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. But that is an issue for cultural critics to explore, along with the way the film barely even discusses race in itself (all the white characters are totally marginal), and the ethics of celebrating gun violence as spectacle, especially Black-on-Black gun violence.
Take all that heavy stuff out of the equation, and this stands up as just an uproariously fun hootenanny, made with style. The music alone is worth the price of admission, or month’s worth of subscription. An early highlight is a banger, in every sense, titled “Guns Go Bang,” performed by Jay-Z (also a producer here under his other name, Shawn Carter) and Kid Cudi, who shares a writing credit with Samuel. The helmer wrote the score, among his many other duties here, and takes sole writing credit on several of the tracks. In addition, there are a number of exquisitely well-chosen cuts from older artists, including lots of reggae and deep dub by artists such as Barrington Levy and Dennis Brown that will please old-school roots fans who might tune into this expecting a sequel to the classic 1972 Jamaican film The Harder They Come, which starred reggae crooner Jimmy Cliff.
Kudos too to editor Tom Eagles, who cuts with razor precision in sync with the music, especially in the climactic showdown, filmed in a punchy, saturated palette delivered up by DP Mihai Malaimare, production designer Martin Whist and costumer designer Antoinette Messam. (Craft fans will delight in the final girl-fight bout between Beetz’s Mary and King’s Trudy, which takes place in a dye works where bolts of cloth, skeins of yarn and vats of powdered pigment add a riot of color to the proceedings.)
The cast has chemistry in all directions, between the romantic matchups but just as much among the menfolk as they bicker, bond and berate one another. In what may be a sly, tongue-in-cheek joke, the final big-boss fight between Love and Buck becomes a competition less about aim and ballistics than about who can cry more convincingly for the camera about his character’s ruined childhood. A tear-down? A cry fight? Cinema hasn’t yet got a term for what the two actors are doing here, but we’re here for it.