In the golden age of Hollywood, Westerns dominated the box office. From the 1930s to the 1960s, some of the biggest films in cinema were from the genre. Jeymes Samuel puts his own stamp on the Western in his directorial debut for Netflix, out in theaters Friday. With intense action sequences, violence and a love story at the center, “The Harder They Fall” has all the components that make the genre so iconic. However, it also offers something that many past Westerns have lacked — the truth.
According to Smithsonian magazine, 1 in 4 cowboys in the 18th and 19th centuries were Black. But looking at iconic films like “Dances With Wolves,” “High Noon” and “Rio Bravo,” it would seem that Black people don’t even exist. “The Harder They Fall,” however, positions Black people in the center of its narrative.
These stories and countless others involving Black cowboys have been buried in the history books. But in recent years, there has been an unearthing.
The movie is a fictional revenge story that follows the Robin Hood-like outlaw Nat Love (Jonathan Majors) as he seeks vengeance against the deviant golden pistol-carrying Rufus Buck (Idris Elba). Nat and his gang include his fearsome lover, Stagecoach Mary (Zazie Beetz), the comical Jim Beckwourth (RJ Cyler), the loyal Cuffee (Danielle Deadwyler) and the stoic Bill Pickett (Edi Gathegi). In contrast, Buck’s crew are primarily nameless soldiers except for his right hands, the ruthless Trudy Smith (Regina King) and sharpshooting Cherokee Bill (LaKeith Stanfield).
Also truer to life than many previous Westerns, neither Buck nor Love fit the molds of an actual villain or hero. Though Love has a code of sorts and chooses to rob other outlaws instead of innocent people, he’s still quick to pull a trigger and wield his knife. Conversely, while Buck is motivated by power and greed, his ultimate quest is to build an all-Black promised land.
It’s also evident that the demons of Buck’s childhood have contributed to his menacing nature. Elba’s portrayal is sinister and quiet, but his humanity is apparent throughout the film, especially in the presence of his lover, Trudy. Black women, Trudy included, are also given agency in the movie. Beetz’s Mary and Deadwyler’s Cuffee are also no damsels in distress. In fact, the film concludes with the whisper of a Black woman-centered sequel on the horizon. Nuances, heart and humor infuse the other characters as well.
Though “The Harder They Fall” is fictional, these were very real people. The actual Nat Love was born into slavery near Nashville, Tennessee, in 1854. In his autobiography, he recounted his life in Kansas, where he gambled, moved huge herds of cattle and even drank with Billy the Kid. When the railroad industry began to surge at the beginning of the 20th century, he left Kansas to become a Pullman porter for the Denver and Rio Grande railroad.
The son of a Black mother and a Creek Indian father, the real Rufus Buck also caused chaos and turmoil wherever he went. At age 18, he decided to try to expel white settlers from Indigenous land in Oklahoma. Buck and four other teen boys went on a two-week rampage in the summer of 1895. Their spree included robbery, rape and murder. They were hanged for their crimes on July 1, 1896.
These stories and countless others involving Black cowboys have been buried in the history books. But in recent years, there has been an unearthing. “The Harder They Fall” isn’t the only contemporary depiction of the Black cowboy. Elba starred in the Philadelphia-set “Concrete Cowboy,” out in April. Annie Silverstein’s feature film debut, “Bull,” is also centered on a Black cowboy, Abe (Rob Morgan), and his mentee, 14-year-old Kris (Amber Havard).
However, neither of these stories deliver the sweeping drama and electricity that “The Harder They Fall” provides. In addition to the historical epic, Samuel accompanies his film with a powerful soundtrack. It’s stuffed full of reggae and afrobeat tracks, including one from the legendary Nigerian musician Fela Kuti. The soundtrack also features music from Seal (Samuel’s older brother) and Lauryn Hill, as well as a new song from Jay-Z, who also executive produced the film. The music adds texture to the narrative by allowing it to be wholly modern while still paying tribute to the past.
Unlike earlier Westerns, whiteness is merely an afterthought in “The Harder They Fall.” Love and Buck’s world exists within itself, and white people live elsewhere, in literal whites-only towns. While the white people seem thrilled by their apparent oases, Nat and Cuffee are bemused by the vapidness of it all when they step into these spaces.
With its history, music and incredible cast, “The Harder They Fall” is more than a story that pays homage to the Black cowboys who lived, thrived and created chaos in the Wild West. Though much of the narrative exists in the action sequences, the connections between the characters are profoundly humanizing. Samuel doesn’t try to reimagine the Western. Instead, he presents the genre as it always should have been.