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As a Black-Led Western, ‘The Harder They Fall’ Is Rare, but Don’t Call It an Alternative History

Filmmaker Jeymes Samuel says the movie is a more truthful vision of the Old West, where one in four cowboys were Black.

THE HARDER THEY FALL (C: L-R): REGINA KING as TRUDY SMITH, ZAZIE BEETZ as MARY FIELDS. CR: DAVID LEE/NETFLIX © 2021

“The Harder They Fall”

Netflix

With a cast led by Black actors, including Idris Elba and Regina King, Jeymes Samuel’s upcoming film “The Harder They Fall” stands in stark contrast to the white-dominated world of classic Westerns. But the way Samuel sees it, his vision is more rooted in truth than John Wayne’s version of the Old West.

“Black people in period pieces — we’re not subservient. ‘The Harder They Fall’ is not an alternative viewpoint of the West. It’s actually a realistic viewpoint of the West,” Samuel said during a recent Q&A in support of the Netflix film. “What Hollywood was feeding us for all of those years wasn’t an alternative viewpoint of the West — it was just a lie.”

In fact, the Smithsonian estimates that one in four cowboys were Black, just like Nat Love, a real-life figure portrayed by Jonathan Majors in the film. Elba takes on the role of another real person, the outlaw leader of the Rufus Buck Gang.

Samuel spoke during a Thursday Q&A broadcast online following the Los Angeles premiere of the film the day before. He was joined by cast members Elba, King, Majors, and Zazie Beetz. “The Harder They Fall” is the first feature from writer/director/producer/composer Samuel, who is perhaps better known for releasing his music and accompanying shorts as The Bullitts.

Elba says the film is nothing short of revolutionary for its portrayal of Black people in the region and time.

“What we should be celebrating and what we have been celebrating here today is the impact of [the movie] on film and storytelling. My daughter is at NYU, she’s 19-years-old, she came to see the film and she immediately went back, and it changed her life because she saw historical figures that she had no consciousness of, in a genre she had no attachment to,” he said. “That ripple effect is going to help cinema, filmmakers, diversify their lens a bit in how you tell stories of Black folk. We found ourselves in a little bit of a hamster wheel of wanting to regurgitate stories about history, but only from a specific lens.”

And for Samuel, one entry point into challenging tropes is the movie’s score.

“It was always the case of not wanting to tread where cinema had already treaded, doing something wholly new, giving it its own signature,” he said. “To give it its own character, sonically, I wanted to literally bring the entire diaspora together. So I’ll go to Africa — to Cape Verde and Mali and Nigeria … and bring it to America, I’ll go to Jamaica.”

King, too, said she considered the African diaspora and the resiliency of Black people when approaching her character, Trudy Smith.

“A perfect example is music, what Jeymes just explained with how the Carribbean connects with the African connects with the American,” she said. “I felt like, ‘Oh, here’s an opportunity to, though dialect, show where all of that exists. When you listen to Trudy you shouldn’t be able to pinpoint where she’s from. She should sound like she’s from everywhere and that’s kind of all these characters … They’re nomads and we’re meeting them in a space that Jeymes has created. They’re all real people, but he created a space for the audience to get introduced to them together.”

She added, “People are going to go back and get on the Google and want to learn more and want to nurture that thing that hasn’t been satiated inside them. I know that it hadn’t been satiated inside me, because I’m not a huge fan of Westerns. But if Westerns looked like this, or felt like this, or sounded like this, I’d be a huge fan.”

Netflix will release “The Harder They Fall” in theaters on October 22. It starts streaming November 3.

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