Review: The Harder They Fall

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One of the great lies of Hollywood is that the Old West was white. The Western genre dates to the inception of filmmaking and its gilded era in the 1950s and 1960s saw productions in that genre churned out at such a rate as to make Marvel blush. Of course, seemingly every single one of these was led by white men, a trend that has continued long into the twilight years of the Western. The alarming notion is that these films subconsciously informed opinion, influencing the cultural oxygen of (particularly) America that black people did not have agency in the Old West.

How wrong they were. Jaymes Samuel, the director of Netflix’s latest The Harder They Fall¸ has clearly read a history book. In the period of the Old West between the end of the Civil War and the 20th century, over 25% of cowboys were black. The lawless desert frontier acted in many ways as a haven for black people to succeed on their own terms; discrimination undoubtedly persisted but here the ability to occupy positions of power was far likelier. Samuel’s motive in crafting this film is simple: make a Western movie where the entire principal cast is black and who are based off real life African American figures from the era who have never fully been cinematically depicted. And so it is that legendary persons such as Bass Reeves and Mary Fields come together for the first time, prompting a quick Wikipedia search at every name-drop. This is Avengers: Endgame for black cowboy heroes, and it’s thunderously entertaining.

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Samuel’s style draws heavily on what Quentin Tarantino brought to the genre with Django Unchained: a focus on a black story, zesty, bloodthirsty shootouts, playful dialogue, and an anachronistic soundtrack that works a lot better here than in the Jamie Foxx picture. The Harder They Fall has a belter of an opening scene that lays the foundations for a surprisingly simple story: Nat Love (Jonathan Majors) seeks vengeance on the ruthless Rufus Buck (an impeccably dressed Idris Elba) after Nat’s family are shot before him and a crucifix is carved into his forehead. Nat joins forces with Zazie Beetz and Delroy Lindo (playing the criminally under-the-radar Bass Reeves) among others, whilst Buck’s gang includes Regina King and a very cool Lakeith Stanfield. Extremely negative reviews from old men have pointed out the film’s entirely black cast as being completely inaccurate and jarring; this is only evidence that they must not have seen the opening lines which, to paraphrase, remark that whilst the story may be a fiction, the people were real.

The broad cast functions well. Regina King is a sensational sadist, and her dynamic with a menacing Elba is understated. One scene between them flirts with the idea that the town Rufus Buck ‘owns’ is a haven for black people. The colourful, hopeful décor of the buildings feels like the interiors of Squid Game’s main centre, but the opportunity for black people to live away from the discrimination of the cities and ‘civilised’ East of America feels like I slightly missed chance to formally address. It’s only when we see a ‘white town’ (a rib-cracking visual gag) that this notion of an African American life without suffering in the 19th century becomes truly apparent. But equally, Buck is a violent savage despite his eloquence. It is another case of ‘right idea, wrong way about it’.

If the music is far too modern for its setting, the same is true for the camerawork. There are some dazzling, manipulative shots on display here. The Harder They Fall feels like Samuel’s passion project; some of the slickest shots feel like they have been slept on for years, waiting to be used. It is by no means a beautiful Western like Once Upon a Time in the West or The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, however the photography is so married to Samuel’s directorial sensibilities that it is noteworthy for the genre. The finale, obviously a shootout, is unabashedly fun. Occasionally subversive but constantly graphic, the prolonged ballet of bullets is rewarding and has a strong awareness for escalation. An all round cracking piece of entertainment.

 

The Harder They Fall is available on Netflix now with a 15 certificate. Watch the trailer below:

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3rd Year History and Film student. Can be found praising Bond, defending Transformers and still saving up for the Lego Death Star.

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