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film ‘The Harder They Fall’: A Big, Star-Studded Black Western

“The Harder They Fall”, the dynamic black western, corrects the historical record. Manifest Destiny may have been a uniquely Anglo-Saxon concept, but white people weren’t alone in the westward expansion that followed the Civil War.

"The Harder They Fall" - Zazie Beetz and Jonathan Majors,David Lee/Netflix © 2021

Jeymes Samuel’s “The Harder They Fall” is a dynamite Black Western that doesn’t waste any time putting its cards on the table. “While the events of this story are fictional…” reads the opening scrawl, “These. People. Existed.” The point couldn’t be clearer: This tense, propulsive, and ultra-glossy Netflix oater might lay a thick new Jay-Z track over the opening credits (of a film that he also produced) and assemble an Avengers-worthy team of obscure Black icons from across the entire 19th century into a single explosive shootout, but Samuel has little interest in letting his film be ascribed to fantasy or lumped in with the rest of its genre’s revisionist streak.

On the contrary, “The Harder They Fall” seems determined to correct the record. Manifest Destiny may have been a uniquely Anglo-Saxon concept, but white people weren’t alone in the westward expansion that followed the Civil War — no matter what the vast majority of movies about that time period would have you believe. In fact, many historians estimate that more than a quarter of the era’s cowboys were Black, and so the idea of making a straightforward Western about two rival factions of African-American outlaws shouldn’t require any stretch of the imagination. This isn’t “Hamilton.” A revenge saga about Nat Love (Jonathan Majors) hunting down the ruthless man who killed his parents (Idris Elba) isn’t woke just because Hollywood has been sleepwalking through the same blinkered vision of the past since the glory days of John Ford.

Of course even Ford once made a Western starring Woody Strode, but Samuel’s film doesn’t grapple with race to the same degree as precursors like “Sergeant Rutledge” or Sidney Poitier’s “Buck and the Preacher.” Likewise, “The Harder They Fall” wears its modernity with a much lighter touch than Blaxploitation classics like “Thomasine and Bushrod” or “The Legend of Black Charley.” While the real Cherokee Bill probably never called any of his victims a “motherfucker,” and the actual Stagecoach Mary was too busy delivering the mail with a loaded shotgun under each arm to ever sing glittery R&B slow jams at the brothel she owns in this movie, such occasional flourishes of 21st century flash do more to bring the past into the present than they do the present into the past. They’re accents, not asterisks (which isn’t to diminish the magic of an original soundtrack that also includes new songs by Ms. Lauryn Hill, Alice Smith, Samuel’s brother Seal, and the director himself, who additionally wrote the film’s percussive funk score and deploys all of this music with a finesse that only makes you listen closer to the film’s historical overtones).

This is the biggest, poppiest, and most star-studded Black Western ever made — a film whose rare signs of whiteness are only used for comedic effect — and its ontological and historical power alike are both rooted in the fact that it refuses to justify its conceit beyond those opening 10 seconds. These people existed, in one form or another, and it’s a lot of fun to see which of them still do by the time they’ve all run out of bullets.

The plot is the stuff of a standard-issue Western from the moment it kicks off, but there’s a good reason why the genre has always leathered so well (Samuel and co-writer Boaz Yakin have one big twist up their sleeve, which they save for so long that its impact has faded by the time it comes out). It starts by taking the legend of Nat Love in an unexpected direction, as “The Harder They Fall” borrows the slave-turned-cowboy’s famous defiant streak and scrambles it into a very different origin story. Here, Nat is a young boy whose idyllic home life on the prairie is turned upside down when mean ol’ Rufus Buck (Elba) busts down the door, murders both of his parents in cold blood, and carves a cross into Nat’s forehead.

When the story picks up some years later, Nat (Majors) has become the head of his own band of outlaws — outlaws who rassle up other outlaws in order to do some good for the world as they wait to settle the score with the baddest man around. Rufus has been in jail ever since a deputy U.S. marshal put him there (Bass Reeves is played by a pistol-slinging Delroy Lindo, here reuniting with his “Da 5 Bloods” co-star Majors for a part that’s every bit as good as “a pistol-slinging Delroy Lindo” makes it sound), but there’s a plan afoot to bust him out.

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Enter: The rest of the Rufus Buck gang, a fashion-forward group of bandits that includes the infamous Cherokee Bill (a sly Lakeith Stanfield) and the mysterious Trudy Smith (Regina King), whose kill-or-be-killed philosophy obscures whatever feelings she might harbor for the boss. First they’re going to go all “Con Air” on the passenger train that’s transporting Rufus from one prison to another, and then they’re going to set up shop in the town he used to call home; the plan is to make Redwood into a Mecca for Black people west of the Mississippi, even if they have to do it through fear alone. Meanwhile, the only fear that ruffles Stagecoach Mary (a magnetic Zazie Beetz, sporting a top hat so well it could single-handedly bring them back in style) is the fear that her on-again, punched-again boyfriend Nat might leave her — again — to settle the score with Rufus. She might just have to go with him to get the job done.

If that’s basically all there is to it, “The Harder They Fall” is less about the what of it all than the how. And it’s a good thing too, as that emphasis becomes a real saving grace for a movie whose hero is more of a mood than a man (if also not enough of a mood to carry the movie on the strength of his glint). Majors throws his entire body into the role with a gung-ho swagger that holds the story together, but the hyper-charismatic star isn’t given much to play beyond Nat’s cool bloodlust.

Samuel’s film hitches its wagon to the idea that all of its characters — “good” and “bad” — have to kill the demon inside of themselves if they ever hope to live in peace, but Nat hardly seems conflicted about his vendetta. He knows who put the devil inside his gut and cut the Lord onto his forehead, and that’s good enough for him. If that’s not always good enough to keep “The Harder They Fall” standing on its feet throughout a sluggish middle section, Nat’s buddies keep it from falling over completely. Danielle Deadwyler brings all kinds of clenched strength to the androgynous powerhouse Cuffee, while RJ Cyler of “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” repute injects a hotheaded childishness to his quick-draw rivalry with Cherokee Bill. Neither of these characters resonate all that deeply, and yet both of them (and several others) pop off the screen with enough flair to make you feel like you’ve always known their nameIt’s hard to imagine how Elba has new shades of big screen villainy left to share after the likes of “Cats” and “Star Trek Beyond,” but the weary Rufus has more grit than the rest of them combined. It takes a certain kind of man to spring out of jail and then saunter down the main street of Redwood without changing out of his prison stripes. Elba conveys more with a half-shut eyelid than most actors can with their entire bodies, and he puts just enough top-serve on every shot to keep us guessing; when Rufus murders an innocent townsperson without so much as twitching a muscle, some part of you might swear it noticed his disembodied zen betraying a deeper purpose. Also, he has a pair of golden pistols, which are extremely cool even when he’s not spinning them around on his fingers.

“The Harder They Fall” is the work of someone who understands high style as its own form of substance, and it’s filled with similarly neat details that bleed into the bigger picture. Some, like the whitest town you’ll ever see, are good for a quick visual gag. Others, such as Trudy’s Fulani hoop earrings (among so many other aspects of Antoinette Messam’s rich costume design) subtly locate these characters in the broader context of the African diaspora. Best of all are the bursts of grindhouse violence that build to a climactic martial-arts throwdown and allow Samuel to remix his favorite influences into the film without straining its relationship to a specific past.

One day, fingers crossed, it will be illegal to shoot a Western on digital, but even during its most plastic or heightened moments “The Harder They Come” always manages to keep at least one foot on the ground. This is a film about real people, and — for all of its modern energy — Samuel’s debut stays connected to the soil where their legends were born.

“The Harder They Fall” premiered at the 2021 London Film Festival. Netflix released it in select theaters on Friday, October 22, with a streaming release on  November 3.