Marking the directorial debut feature of British songwriter and filmmaker Jeymes Samuel, The Harder They Fall is a Western that is co-produced by Jay-Z and frequent Quentin Tarantino collaborator Lawrence Bender. Starring an ensemble cast with prominent actors of colour such as Jonathan Majors, Idris Elba, Regina King, Zazie Beetz and Lakeith Stanfield, the film follows cowboy Nat Love (Majors) as he seeks revenge against ruthless townsman Rufus Buck (Elba), who was responsible for the murder of his parents.
On the face of it, the film is a tale of two gangs, namely the Nat Love Gang, which includes among others his love interest Stagecoach Mary (Beetz) and tomboy Cuffee (Danielle Deadwyler), and the Rufus Buck Gang, who runs a town by taxing its population with the help of his lieutenant Trudy Smith (King). Both ruthless in character, Love and Buck are driven by two different factors – Love is seeking retribution while Buck just wants to survive in a ‘world’ of his own. With neither willing to dissuade from their ambitions and anybody unable to do so, the narrative quickly becomes an intense tale of who is going to fall first.
In popular culture, Westerns are renowned for their hard-faced Caucasian hero and their associate of non-White descent. Needless to say, the task of modernising a classic genre is a serious challenge for any filmmaker, let alone for a relative newcomer such as Samuel. But this is exactly what he does – The Harder They Fall brings the outdated genre up-to-date by combining familiar elements such as the narrative of a revenge-driven thriller and gorgeous rolling landscapes with notable real-life Black figures of the ‘Old West’ such as Nat Love, Bill Pickett (played by Edi Gathegi) and Bass Reeves (Delroy Lindo). Meanwhile, its key female characters are not dismissed or considered inferior because of their gender. Despite a questionable ploy involving Cuffee and a robbery, she, Stagecoach Mary and Trudy are all ballsy, independent characters who show they aren’t afraid to throw down and draw arms, with a no-holds-barred fight in a barn being an action-packed highlight.
The use of vibrant colours, lush costumes and surprisingly eloquent dialogue embellishes this Western with class, intelligence and confidence that is accompanied by creative and edgy camerawork. The relentlessly violent fight scenes verge on the cusp of gratuitous while Samuel and Boaz Lakin’s screenplay brushes aside the old (albeit questionable) genre tropes and brings in the new with a bold and unapologetic mix of sass and style, with the blunt description of the town of Mayville being a standout comedic moment.
With an amazing cast as its biggest weapon, The Harder They Fall essentially confronts the misconceptions of African-Americans in the Old West by presenting them as powerful and ruthless leaders while any Caucasian characters they face cower in fear. Majors’ complex performance as Nat Love offers hearts and guts while Elba’s quiet intimidation and dominance make him an effective cold-hearted villain. RJ Cyler, Edi Gathegi and Damon Wayans Jr. deliver bouts of comedic relief but Deadwyler, Beetz and King exude self-assuredness in their respective roles to become the film’s standout performers.
Similar to Black Panther, The Harder They Fall is a genre-busting celebration of Black talent. Along with a heady combination of action, style and confidence, it is not only a thrilling piece of modern cinema but an incredible directorial debut for Jeymes Samuel.
The Harder They Fall will be available on Netflix on 3 November 2021.
Director: Jeymes Samuel, Boaz Larkin (co-screenwriter)
Stars: Jonathan Majors, Idris Elba, Regina King, Lakeith Stanfield, Delroy Lindo, Zazie Beetz, Danielle Deadwyler, Edi Gathegi, RJ Cyler
Runtime: 137 minutes