When thinking of Western genre icons, John Wayne and Clint Eastwood often come to mind. It wasn’t until Mario Van Peebles’ 1993 film Posse was released (making it an outlier among westerns because of it’s nearly all-Black cast) that Black western genre fans in the 1990s were able to image that they could exist in the Wild West as heroes. Director Jeymes Samuel and producer Jay-Z are building upon this legacy with their film The Harder They Fall, debuting theatrically on October 22 and streaming on Netflix beginning November 3.
Notorious outlaw Nat Love (Jonathan Majors) is a robber of robbers and a killer of killers. He killed every last one of the members of Rufus Buck’s (Idris Elba) gang that participated in the slaughter of his parents. With the crew gone and Rufus in jail, Love aims to get back to an everyday life with his love interest, Stagecoach Mary (Zazie Beetz). His dreams come to a halt when Rufus’ closest confidants Trudy (Regina King) and Cherokee Bill (LaKeith Stanfield) rescue him from the Army. Rufus has some goals of his own, the main one being to turn the majority Black town of Redwood into a utopia for other Black folks, but he needs lots of money to make it happen. Nat is stirred up once more and plans to hunt down Rufus to finish the job with his own gang of outlaws and Bass Reeves (Delroy Lindo) in tow.
There is an overemphasis on modernity which serves as a strength and weakness. While watching, it’s easy to forget it’s a Western. This is partly due to the music that, at times, is overbearing and disrupts the narrative’s authentic flow. Posse is iconic because it solely exists in a space and time that’s particular to the genre. Don’t get it twisted, this is a minor observation compared to The Harder They Fall’s entertainment factor and ballsy brutality. A Western purist might have issues with some of the film’s choices (me), but there is no denying that it is filled with charismatic characters and action sequences that are fun to watch (also me).
Majors and King are also amongst the most memorable characters. Majors’ smile radiates charm and is leading-man material. King is scarily on point as an antagonist. She’s done numerous roles as the likable main character, but in The Harder They Fall, she is ruthless and deadly. I want to see more of this energy in future films.
The most exciting aspect of the story is that Samuel’s script uses Rufus Buck to bring up some interesting topics the film doesn’t fully expound upon — ideas ripe for future exploration. Buck is a complicated antagonist with a strict moral code. He wants to provide a haven for Black people, but by force and at their own financial expense. There is a lot to be said about capitalism and what that looks like in micro communities of color, under the guise of “helping each other out.”
Buck understands the cycle of violence will come back to haunt him one day, but he had some revenge of his own to tend to, and there were some casualties. However, viewers might find themselves muttering, “Was he wrong for that, though?” The only issue here is Buck has a significant emotional and informational reveal in the last 15 minutes of the film that could have given the protagonist an even stronger emotional conflict had it been presented sooner. The reveal is a powerful one, just awkwardly placed within the story.
Nothing should be one way forever, and this film genre is prime for deconstruction and reinvention as old stories should cover new ground with fresh representation. We can be heroes, villains, and everything in between, which is the most vital component of The Harder They Fall. Not only that, but this movie is vicious, unapologetic, and has moments of levity to balance out the brutality. Is it perfect? No, but it might be a mainstream revitalization of a genre many thought was long dead.