Look at that picture for a second from “The Harder They Fall.” Does the sight of Black actors in western duds strike you for some reason? If it does, you are not alone. For decades, westerns have always featured robust, keen-eyed white dudes in a gunfight or rescuing this dusty-hued damsel in distress.
We are an awakening nation now, even though we still have some way to go before we are “woke.” So, it seems more palatable when we capture Idris Elba, who more than fills a screen with brandished bravado. Then, the first screen of the movie shakes you with a blackened picture and white letters reading “These. People. Existed.”
MEMO to the closed-minded folks or cantankerous western film critics out there: Suck it.
“The Harder They Fall” is a Black western because cowboys did not all look like Wyatt Earp and Jesse James even in the Old West. It is worth watching “The Harder They Fall” because if seeing buckaroo Black people did not cause you to stumble in shock, the premise of this film will.
The Old West and a New Look Long Overdue
Look at the backdrop, and you know there will be significant action. Watch the channel, and you know there will be a memorable plot. See that cast and you better believe awards are coming.
Idris Elba, Delroy Lindo (who was so shafted by being overlooked for his work in another Netflix film, “Da 5 Bloods”), Regina King, LaKeith Stanfield, Zazie Beetz, and Jonathan Majors star in a unique interpretation of a classic western. For 130 minutes, the Wild West gets a refresh of a storied tale of revenge, directed by Jaymes Samuel.
If that name doesn’t ring a bell, it’s because he has been known primarily for music under the name “The Bullitts.” We experience Samuel’s harmonious approach to movies and music in Baz Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby” and Jay-Z’s “Legacy.”
Oh yes, his brother is Seal. Yes, that Seal!
Samuel is also no stranger to the Western genre. His directorial debut was in 2013 at Austin, Texas’ SXSW Festival with “They Die by Dawn.” While that film was not as celebrated as it should have been, “The Harder They Fall” is in the same genre and will be this guy’s coming-out party.
His creative interpretation is an Etch-a-Sketch to the entire Western genre. Samuel’s aesthetic and nuanced characterization is a big shake-up giving all cinephiles a fresh, clean slate to consider. The story is remarkably concise. Typically, yesteryear’s Western movie takes a Paddy wagon approach to tell an entire story. The flow for those plots is about as slow as a Kardashian in a Spelling Bee.
Samuel allows what starts in Point A to get right to Point B in this film. It is a refreshing take for what is considered a typical Cowboy movie. Sure, the tropes are all there: orphans going back home for revenge, a gang of outlaws who wronged his family. and even a gang said orphan joins to shoot up everything in sight.
Of course, when our hero is gallivanting around from saloon to saloon, he finds the songbird on the stage in whose arms our hero finds love. But there is a distinct difference.
The Beat of a Different (Hip-Hop) Drummer
Directors take a modern approach every once in a while, on a more diverse Western film. In 1993, Mario Van Peebles did it with “Posse,” featuring 80s rap pioneer Big Daddy Kane and another rapper of a much lesser degree, Tone Loc. Want to know why you have not heard of it? Watch it. That will explain it.
Farther back in 1972, the dearly departed Sidney Poitier directed and starred in “Buck and the Preacher.” Not for nothing, but the film was financed by Poitier’s dear friend and fellow activist, Harry Belafonte. This film was about Black farmers trying to escape some newly concocted form of slavery following the Civil War.
Ratings weren’t excellent. Neither were critiques. But this movie did one thing no one thought it could do—people did not question the Old West had people who looked like that. Rotten Tomatoes was not around to judge, and TMZ wasn’t taking shady pictures of the guys on the set. It was a triumph because it changed perception, even for some of the stiffest corn cobs.
Now, “Django” does not count as a “Black Western.” Neither does “The Magnificent Seven” just because Denzel was in it. Not since 1993 has there been an actual Western featuring Black people, and not since 1972 has there been one that mattered. Then, something interesting happened in 2013.
Samuel’s first Western featured at that SXSW close to 10 years ago showed up on screens featuring almost an entirely Black cast. Erykah Badu played a real heroic person named Stagecoach Mary Fields, the first African-American female mail carrier in U.S. history. It was apparent then Samuel wanted more than a “Black Western,” he wanted a story to make a difference.
In 2021, he found one.
This is that story. There are larger-than-life characters. The backdrop isn’t Blaxploitation or “Hang ‘Em High” Spaghetti Westerns. This is a real tale of real people making a real difference.
Does the movie have problems? Yes. Does it drone on in some areas? Yes. Does it matter? For this film, no. That is because, in a few more years, you may see more tales from the Old West that could awaken Hollywood to what was out there—whether Hollywood is woke enough to see it or not.
Since he saw ‘Dune’ in the $1 movie theater as a kid, this guy has been a lover of geek culture. It wasn’t until he became a professional copywriter, ghostwriter, and speechwriter that he began to write about it (a lot).
From the gravitas of the Sith, the genius of Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, or the gluttony of today’s comic fan, SPW digs intelligent debate about entertainment. He’s also addicted to listicles, storytelling, useless trivia, and the Oxford comma. And, he prefers his puns intended.