Black cowboys were a thing.
That might be hard to believe, especially if your frames of reference of the Old American West are John Wayne films and the Starz Encore Westerns channel. A generous explanation is that Hollywood didn’t know what it didn’t know about Black people in the West; a more honest one is that movie studios weren’t interested in centering Black people in stories, especially those supposed to reflect the tenacity of the American spirit. Only a few Westerns feature Black actors in prominent roles, the two most notable being Mario Van Peeples’ 1993 film Posse and 1999’s Wild Wild West starring Will Smith.
The pickings are so slim that The Harder They Fall feels obliged to open with this statement: “While the events of this story are fictional… These. People. Existed.” The opening is both a history lesson and a rebuttal against claims that this newest, long-overdue entry into the Black Western catalog is revisionist history. And yet, rather than being defensive, that opening text frees filmmaker Jeymes Samuel from further explanation or exposition so that he can traverse an under-explored world where Black men and women roamed the Western plains in search of something more.
The man on the proverbial horse is Nat Love (Jonathan Majors), an outlaw seeking vengeance for his parents’ gruesome murder when he was a child. Just as he begins winding down his journey, ready to settle down with his ex-lover Stagecoach Mary (Zazie Beetz), Nat learns that Rufus Buck (Idris Elba), the crime boss responsible, has escaped police custody. With the help of his crew, including Trudy Smith (Regina King) and Cherokee Bill (Lakeith Stanfield), Rufus has taken over a local town to recoup the money that Nat had stolen from him. Nat gets his crew together to finally confront Rufus and get justice for himself and his family.
The first thing you notice about The Harder They Fall (after that opening text) is its heightened sense of style. Samuel, a first-time feature film director, draws undeniable inspiration from Quentin Tarantino and perhaps James Gunn but imbues those cues with his point of view. The film pulses with an intense energy that conveys both joy and abject terror aligned with the lawlessness of the times, and that’s before factoring in the constant barrage of gunshots and blood splatter. The violence is plentiful but doesn’t feel gratuitous and numb in the way CGI-heavy brutality often does. Samuel thrives in the chaos that comes with every bullet fired, deriving a surprising amount of fun and even humor from his colorful, carefully-constructed set pieces. Adding to the atmosphere is the film’s soundtrack, an eclectic and anachronistic mix of music from the Black diaspora that nonetheless reflects the passionately anarchist spirit. (Samuel is also a singer-songwriter, the younger brother of Seal).
Samuel crafts an engaging experience, but it can come at the plot and characters’ expense. He treats the cowboys of The Harder They Fall – hero or villain – like monuments worthy of deification at the center of the frame (the shot of Trudy sitting on her horse in the middle of the train tracks radiates immense power). That distant consideration, unfortunately, translates into how he develops them as characters. While not precisely tropes, the characters don’t feel fully realized through the page. Despite the life-or-death stakes of his plans, Nat’s motivations and desires don’t extend beyond revenge and low-burning desire. Nat’s antagonist Rufus is even more unknowable, a force of nature that inspires devotion and terror without any context as to how he became that way. That disconnect robs the plot, squarely focused on their decades-long animosity, of some emotional resonance. Samuel and co-writer Boaz Yakin try to rectify the error in the bloody final stretch, but effort rings a bit hollow, especially considering the power that’s lost by waiting so long.
The Harder They Fall’s slight narrative might’ve been a fatal flaw if there wasn’t a stellar cast holding it high on their shoulders. You couldn’t ask for a better ensemble, all of them technically exemplary and capable of creating the inner lives that the script didn’t flesh out. Jonathan Majors, already on an absolute tear following Lovecraft Country and Loki, confirms he is charisma personified, commanding the screen with a knowing, soulful look and an impossibly bright smile. Idris Elba could’ve played to the rafters, but the weary, slightly tortured layers he covers Rufus in are infinitely more compelling and make for one of his best-ever performances. Regina King, Zazie Beetz, and Lakeith Stanfield also lean into their characters’ murky motivations to craft convincing portrayals steeped in complicated and conflicted emotions that you wish the script took the time to explore.
Despite its relative weaknesses, The Harder They Fall is an effortlessly watchable film that carries more than it should have to. Instead of buckling under the weight of expectations that might come from making a Black-led Western, Samuel succeeds in crafting a more-than-worthy addition to a shamefully sparse cinematic canon. It’s an enjoyable debut, the kind that portends a promising filmmaking career that is poised to bring something new and intriguing to the table.