It’s estimated that a quarter of cowboys were Black, but you’d never know it from Hollywood westerns, which so whitewashed American history that Mel Brooks found provocative humor in having a Black man holding the reins in 1974’s Blazing Saddles. Like Mario Van Peebles’ 1993 oater Posse, this debut by Jeymes Samuel (aka London singer/songwriter The Bullits) looks to change things up and have a blast doing it, with its starry Black cast trading shots in thrilling sequences of stylized violence set to quality music.
Many of the larger-than-life characters in The Harder They Fall are historical figures. But Samuel and his co-writer Boaz Yakin (Now You See Me, 2012’s Safe) aren’t past playing fast and loose with history themselves, albeit in less harmful ways. So what we have here is a fictional revenge tale that entangles lives that, in some cases, never did cross, as Nat Love (Jonathan Majors) – aka Deadwood Dick – reconvenes his old gang, including former flame Stagecoach Mary (Zazie Beetz), to take down fearsome outlaw Rufus Buck (Idris Elba). Only Buck has reteamed with his own posse – ‘Treacherous’ Trudy Smith (Regina King), Cherokee Bill (LaKeith Stanfield), and more. Also in the volatile mix is legendary US Marshal Bass Reeves (Delroy Lindo). An almighty gunfight is on the blood-rimmed horizon…
Trumpeted by Netflix as a ‘new-school western’, The Harder They Fall in fact takes the staples of old-school westerns (bandits, bank jobs, train robberies, rowdy taverns, shootouts) but blends them all together in a manner that feels fresh and vibrant. Towns populated by Black people are painted in vivid hues, while an all-white town is literally that – stores built with pale wood and streets coated with sawdust shavings like snowflakes. Samuel is a stylist, given to arresting compositions and whizz-bang set-pieces, but he isn’t afraid to let his magnificent actors simply lock eyes and jaw.
Such gear changes are crucial given the film is long – too long – at two and a quarter hours. But along the way, Samuel springs surprises as neatly as Buck’s gang spring him from incarceration (the scene that kick starts the plot). Perhaps the biggest surprise of all is that The Harder They Fall is not, overtly, a film about race, more interested as it is in being a rip-roaring adventure. But the very fact that it is Black characters who are at last having all the fun says everything.
The Harder They Fall is on Netflix now. For more, check out the other best Netflix movies streaming right now.