Jeymes Samuel’s star-studded revenge western boldly reframes cowboy mythology for a modern audience.
While the events of Jeymes Samuel’s debut feature The Harder They Fall are fictional, the film opens with the declaration: ‘These. People. Existed.’ Blending real-life Black outlaws with a sparky revenge tale, Samuel has created a rapid-fire reinvention of wild west screen lore.
As a gunslinger who wiles away the day targeting bank robbers, Nat Love (Jonathan Majors) learns that his enemy Rufus Buck (Idris Elba) – aka the man who murdered his parents in apparent cold blood – is due to be sprung from prison. This news sends him on a quest for vengeance, rounding up a fearsome gang and forming an unlikely partnership in Bass Reeves (Delroy Lindo), a marshal also hunting Buck.
Across town, another formidable gang is reunited as Buck’s loyal companions, including Cherokee Bill (LaKeith Stanfield) and ‘Treacherous’ Trudy Smith (Regina King), pull off an impressive train heist to free their incarcerated leader, before seeking to regain both money and power. Thus two teams assemble ready for an inevitable bullet-filled smackdown.
From its blood-spattered outset, The Harder They Fall establishes itself as a stylised western with elements of technique and ironic gestures that are sure to draw comparisons to Quentin Tarantino. Yet Samuel’s own background and motivations bring something distinctly different to this feature.
London-born and known for his work as a songwriter and music producer under his stage name The Bullitts, Samuel serves not only as the director and co-writer (along with Boaz Yakin) but also as composer. Far away from the familiar traditions of country and American folk music, Samuel’s soundtrack selections charges his Western with triumphant anthems spanning hip hop, reggae and afrobeat. This is slickly married with striking cinematography that spoils us with rolling landscapes, cool figures on horseback and exhilarating action pieces.
Even with the prevalence of Black cowboys across the American West in the 1800s, they have been largely erased from popular culture. Enduring memories of the western film genre conjure images of John Wayne and Clint Eastwood – much more in line with the ‘all-American’ ideal (violent bandits or not) bestowed onto cowboys.
Stories of Black cowboys have slowly started to bleed into the mainstream in recent years, with Idris Elba already portraying one in Concrete Cowboy, another Netflix release from earlier this year. The Harder They Fall presents the boldest depiction yet of this milieu, reframing cowboy mythology by providing all the enjoyment of a typical revenge epic while always feeling like an inherently Black work to its core.
There are moments during the second act where the pacing sags and the on/off romance between Nat and Zazie Beetz’s Stagecoach Mary feels a little underwritten. These shortcomings are easily forgiven, however, with the sheer fun of drinking in the big performances from King and Majors, in particular. The Harder They Fall is a thrilling feature debut from Jeymes Samuels, redefining the movie western for a modern age. These. People. Existed. And we want more.
Published 7 Oct 2021
Regina King, Lakeith Stanfield, Idris Elba, and Jonathan Majors star in the yarn of cowpokes and outlaws.
In a landscape of total celebrity saturation, is this enigmatic Hollywood icon is the last of the pure movie stars?