“These. People. Existed.”
While this declaration is accompanied by the disclaimer that yes, The Harder They Fall is a fictionalized work of art, this prelude serves as a timely reminder that while Jeymes Samuel’s first foray into feature film is unlike anything we’ve ever experienced before—though there are not-so-subtle nods to its forefathers like 1993’s Posse and the groundbreaking Buck and the Preacher—it’s steeped in the exact type of lore that historians either conveniently whitewash or blatantly dismiss.
Since its inception, the American Western genre has been decidedly geared toward the John Wayne sect, which means nearly every depiction of Hollywood’s Old West is devoid of real-life Black cowboys like Nat Love, who was introduced to modern audiences by way of 1996’s cheeky The Cherokee Kid (played by Ernie Hudson) or 2013’s They Die by Dawn (played by the late, great Michael K. Williams), but who transcends into a tour de force and potential pop culture icon in Netflix’s The Harder They Fall.
Jonathan Major’s brilliant portrayal of Love follows in the footsteps of other Black royalty such as Harry Belafonte, Denzel Washington, Mario Van Peeples, Sidney Poitier, and Danny Glover, who have each had the privilege of bringing their unique take on Black excellence to the Old West. The Harder They Fall’s ensemble cast is rounded out by some other familiar names, which include Idris Elba, who plays the sinister Rufus Buck; Zazie Beetz, who plays the adroit Stagecoach Mary; Regina King, who kicks ass and takes names as the “Treacherous” Trudy Smith; LaKeith Stanfield, who plays Cherokee Bill, and Deon Cole, who delivers a stellar performance as the disgraced Wiley Escoe.
Typically a cast of this magnitude lends itself to a film that’s more style than story, but with a running time of over two hours, The Harder They Fall succeeds in establishing a delicate balance between the two. Yes, there are heart-pounding shootouts, bone-crushing fistfights, and the type of gruesome violence that’s threatened during social media quarrels, but there are also tender moments of reflection, sacrifices made for the greater good, and a masterfully executed script that allows nearly every member of the ensemble cast to both shine and evolve as characters. There’s also a dope-ass soundtrack that adds a contemporary flair to the theatrics onscreen, allowing us to further connect with a genre that’s historically made it a point to keep Black audiences at bay.
As for the story itself, Nat Love is on a mission to avenge the childhood murder of his parents, which was carried out by the nefarious Rufus Buck. In turn, Love has every intention of following through on his promise to seek revenge on Buck by his lonesome, but Love’s loyal crew of outlaws and outcasts has other plans—as does Buck’s own gang of heartless killers and calculated misfits.
For all of its strengths, The Harder They Fall isn’t without its faults. While the film strives to feel larger than life in scope, it doesn’t quite capitalize on the endless possibilities that the Old West lends to the genre as a whole. If anything, it feels a bit restricted—in part because of its artificially rendered landscape and brief incursions into its white periphery. There’s also the fact that while the cast is almost entirely Black, because each of these characters have been plucked from their real-life counterparts, it’s unclear if the intent behind the film is to enlighten, educate, or simply entertain. Clearly, Black folks aren’t a monolith, but when you begin a film with a statement as powerful as “These. People. Existed.”, I’m inclined to believe that The Harder They Fall was created with a much bigger purpose in mind than what was actually delivered on screen.
But don’t get it misconstrued; I very much enjoyed Netflix’s latest offering and expect millions of others to do the same—especially those who are new to the genre or that look like me. However, I can’t help but feel that The Harder They Fall missed a golden opportunity to truly propel the American Western genre to unprecedented heights instead of delivering a chic, spaghetti Western that fails to unleash its true potential.