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The Harder They Fall: Film Review

With The Harder They Fall, Jeymes Samuel gives a voice to those who existed but were rarely heard, and issues in a new and exciting era for the Western genre.

Few directors in their feature film debut would be brave enough to break as many boundaries as Jeymes Samuel does with The Harder They Fall. His sprawling Western epic, which is co-written with Boaz Yakin (Max, Boarding School), might start predictably with a disclaimer noting that the characters’ stories in the film are fictional, but its refreshingly revolutionary tone is set with its next statement: “These. People. Existed.” The people? Black cowboys. The story Samuel is telling might be fictional but the people – Nat Love, Rufus Buck, Stagecoach Mary et al – all existed.

A cinephile with fond memories of watching classic Westerns as a child, he is at pains to set things right, to bring the real-life tales of Black men and women of this era who, well, existed (and then some) to a worldwide audience. On top of this added freshness, The Harder They Fall is also a successful, nostalgic nod to those classic films that Samuel grew up on. It’s a thunderous, violent, ultracool and often beautiful Western, with just the right balance between comedy and drama. Ultimately, The Harder They Fall is nothing short of a success and is one of the wildest rides you’ll have at the cinema this year (or at home, when it launches on Netflix after a limited theatrical release).

There are a fair number of named characters in The Harder They Fall, which makes the opening credits a necessity, if a little jarring in the context of the film. The main crux of the story boils down to the rivalry of two gangs – The Nat Love Gang and The Rufus Buck Gang – and more specifically the years-old rivalry between the two leaders. The ruthless Rufus Buck, played by a searing Idris Elba (Luther, Beasts of No Nation) who uses his immense physicality to incredible effect, begins the film in predictably ruthless fashion as he murders the parents of a 10-year-old in front of his very eyes.

That child turns out to be Nat Love, who in his older years is played by Jonathan Majors (The Last Black Man in San Francisco, Da 5 Bloods); Love might be an adult for much of the film, but Majors imbues a childlike innocence and pain to him throughout, which all spreads back to that one lifechanging moment of his childhood. The Harder They Fall is not just a tale of revenge though, and has a gorgeous, if slightly underdeveloped, romance too between Love and Zazie Beetz’s (Nine Days, Joker) Stagecoach Mary. And even the revenge itself isn’t straightforward, with Samuel staying true to his boundary-breaking tactics with a wonderful, tragic twist in its finale.

Even if Buck seems like the villain, it’s not always that straightforward. Little reveals and stories throughout the film from numerous characters employ a certain sympathy for them; Regina King’s (If Beale Street Could Talk, Watchmen) Treacherous Trudy Smith, part of The Rufus Buck Gang, tells a brief but memorable tale from her childhood. Samuel’s vision to create complex characters as opposed to paper-thin vehicles is very clear and in turn very effective. There is no hammy, classic Western acting here (except a little, here and there, for good measure), only committed performances that dig deeper and go further. Light comedy relief also comes in the form of LaKeith Stanfield’s (Short Term 12, Judas and the Black Messiah) Cherokee Bill and RJ Cyler’s (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl) Jim Beckwourth, two sharpshooters from opposing gangs both vying for sharpshooter supremacy. Cyler in particular shines: think the Sundance Kid, only cheekier and cockier.

J.T. Holt as Mary's Guard, Regina King as Trudy Smith, Zazie Beetz as Mary Fields, and Justin Clarke as Mary's Guard in The Harder They Fall
(L-R) J.T. Holt as Mary’s Guard, Regina King as Trudy Smith, Zazie Beetz as Mary Fields, and Justin Clarke as Mary’s Guard in The Harder They Fall (David Lee / NETFLIX © 2021)

Colour is important in The Harder They Fall. The lack of white people in the film is striking, which in its noticeability points to the sheer dominance from them in this genre throughout cinematic history. Some films like Blazing Saddles (1974) and Django Unchained (2012) might have tried to change the direction of the genre but neither managed it as drastically or as effectively as The Harder They Fall does. When white people do appear, they are either evil or dead (or soon to be). Céline Sciamma reduced men to near-mute, invisible people in her 2019 film Portrait of a Lady on Fire, and here Samuel and Yakin reduce white people to the same in fantastic fashion.

The Harder They Fall is here to tell a story about Black people, but not about their suffering or demise at the hands of racism. It is instead focussed on creating real, well-rounded and well-crafted characters with meaningful stories and lives. A scene of such immense comedy and brutal satire is a short but effective one, with Love and gang member Cuffee – played by Danielle Deadwyler (Watchmen) and another a strong female character with agency – arriving at a small town to rob a bank. Said town is notable with its bleached-white streets, white-painted buildings and all-white population. Samuel’s comedy shines through with a helpful note in brackets reading: “It’s a white town”. Amidst the comedy, though, there is a serious recognition of the racism of this era, with harsh looks and muttered insults thrown at Love and Cuffee from all directions. Racism doesn’t drive the story in The Harder They Fall but it is referred to enough to never be forgotten or discounted. It also doesn’t attempt to define what it means to be ‘Black’, highlighting a multiculturalism within the cast and even through to the music, with influences coming from a range of countries, from Jamaica to Cape Verde to Nigeria.

If you ever needed proof of Samuel’s love for the Western genre, look no further than The Harder They Fall. It has all the hallmarks of those great films of the 1960s and 70s: long shots, extreme close-ups, dramatic zooms, soaring music, chewed cigars and more. Samuel keeps things tense and tight throughout whilst still taking time to create meaningful, complex characters. At just over two hours long, The Harder They Fall never dips in energy or pace. DOPs Sean Bobbitt (12 Years a Slave) and Mihai Mălaimare Jr. (The Master) capture the sweeping and epic glory of Southern America with wide shots, complete with the obligatory cowboys on horses. And for a film about revenge, The Harder They Fall’s final shootout is nothing short of immense, a wonderfully staged and immaculately crafted collection of scenes which boast some of the finest action direction and camerawork of the year.

It is easy to forget that this is Samuel’s feature film directorial debut. He tackles a genre with such a glorious amount of pizzazz and enthusiasm, keeping the best bits of Westerns whilst ensuring things remain distinct with his own style as well as adding new depth and direction to proceedings. A film as ground-breaking as The Harder They Fall needs to be seen by audiences everywhere, something that Netflix can achieve and perhaps cinemas cannot. Whether you see it on a big or small screen though, you’ll still feel its importance and magnitude. Boasting some of the best acting, direction, cinematography and action sequences of the year, The Harder They Fall is so fantastically intoxicating, a heady mixture of nostalgia and freshness moulded together to form something quite breathless.

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The Harder They Fall premiered at the London Film Festival on Wednesday, 6 October 2021. The film will be released globally on Netflix on November 3, 2021.

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