This weekend we’re watching: A fantastical neo-Western about black cowboys
‘The Harder They Fall’ is a flashy, exhilarating modern adventure Western with an impressive cast who play swaggering gunslingers based on the black cowboys and outlaws of the Old West.
Movies that boast of their representation in underrepresented contexts sometimes want a pat on the back simply for existing. Bad representation isn’t much better than no representation, and a progressive, novel core concept is not enough to make a film.
More and more, streaming platforms are piggybacking sub-par projects on racial, sexual and gender representation to grab audiences. Netflix is as guilty of it as anyone, but their new modern Western which has a predominantly black cast is a lot more than a gimmick.
Our leading man, Nat Love (Jonathan Majors) is a wanted outlaw looking for revenge on the infamous criminal, Rufus Buck (Idris Elba). When Rufus’s gang (Regina King, Lakeith Stanfield) hijack a train to bust him out of captivity, Nat and his crew (Zazie Beetz, Danielle Deadwyler, RJ Cyler, Edi Gathegi, Delroy Lindo) set out to kill Rufus.
It’s a case of baddies vs worse-ies. Rufus’s gang rob banks, but Nat’s crew just rob bank robbers, which is just forgivable enough for us to feel justified in liking them. You’re rooting for some bad eggs, and even their foes, who are downright despicable, have some measure of your respect or admiration by virtue of their skill and boldness.
The Harder They Fall opens with the text: “While the events in this story are fictional… These. People. Existed.” Let’s translate that deliberately vague message with a little more detail.
The characters are named after real black cowboys and outlaws from the Old West, each of whom is served with a hearty helping of artistic licence. Some of the people depicted never actually met, many were mixed race and/or of native heritage rather than black, and none of them was probably as extreme as they’re portrayed. The purpose of the opening text is to suggest that the details of these characters are less interesting than the fact that people like them existed, and that they’re so seldom remembered.
The film creates an alternative history of the Old West in which black people could own banks or nightclubs or even run entire towns. Impact is prioritised over reality for the benefit of escapism. Twice, there are scenes featuring white faces for a few minutes, but in both cases, they’re just helpless chumps of little consequence.
Some modern Westerns affect the gritty, grainy, dusty aesthetic of the classics to evoke the authenticity of nostalgic association. Not this one. The design and the cinematography are slick. You’ll barely see a speck of dust. The multicoloured towns look like pristine stage sets, and feel as small.
The Harder They Fall proudly appropriates the Western genre, both claiming it and declaring novelty. It was directed, co-written and scored by Jeymes Samuel, also known as Bullitts, the singer-songwriter and music producer.
Samuel makes bold statements with the score, which blends country with rap, trap, gospel, blues and even scatting – all genres with black cultural associations. There’s even a cheeky Fela Kuti track thrown in.
The incorporation of modern country songs influenced by elements of trap and hip hop is a political one. In 2019, as Lil Nas X’s hit country-fusion song Old Town Road gained record-breaking popularity, it became a point of racial tension – some white traditionalists refused to recognise it as country music and it was removed from Billboard’s Hot Country charts. (For more on this topic, check out the Explained Season 3 episode on Country Music)
The resistance to the evolution of a subgenre of country music that is celebrated by black people is much like the whitewashing of American Western films, and its inclusion asserts that too can change.
Samuel does pay homage to classic Spaghetti Westerns, particularly those of Sergio Leone, in the score and in familiar scenes. In the opening scene, Idris Elba makes a violent entrance as Rufus, coming to terrorise a young Nat’s (farcically quaint) Christian, Midwestern nuclear family. This scene is a likely reference to Frank, a villain with the same mythology and brutality from Once Upon A Time in The West, one of the most famous old Westerns.
Elba brings a quiet, hulking presence, and an unnerving unpredictability but also a complexity seldom found in his cinematic predecessors. Jonathan Majors is excellent as Nat, the scathing avenger, because he holds such fury simultaneously with playfulness. Whether speaking to his lover or his enemy, he wears the same inscrutable smirk, which looks just as much like sarcasm and scorn as elation or love, and sometimes it’s all of the above.
While excellently acted, the other characters are comically one-dimensional and underdeveloped. Samuel ambitiously opens half a dozen subplots but doesn’t give them enough real estate to feel important. The writing is pretty helter-skelter, and it sometimes feels like the plot is unnecessarily extended to include parlour tricks or one-liners.
Samuel only gets away with it on the back of his capable actors, who are too damn good to ask for less of them. Regina King’s performance as Rufus’s enforcer is particularly electric. She is ruthless and terrifying. The only one who struggles to keep up is Zazie Beetz, who relies on excessive scowling and overconfidence in place of charisma in her portrayal of Nat’s sassy love interest.
Everything about the film creates the impression that you are being wooed. The quintessentially outrageous quick-draws and sharp-shooters who strut, saunter and swagger with bravado, the memorable anecdotal monologues, flashy violence and cocky stand-offs, bold romantic gestures and shiny costumes, and the unexpected end that gives a fun, satisfying (and far-fetched) answer to a question you didn’t even think to ask.
The Harder They Fall exaggerates the past, casts believability aside, and even bends the laws of physics so that bullets can send people flying and the sun can shine from several directions at once to create striking shadows. It breaks the rules to bring you a dazzling, unpredictable spectacle of which the racial component is only one of many points of interest. DM/ML
The Harder They Fall is available in South Africa on Netflix.
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