Before the opening credits of Jeymes Samuel’s “The Harder They Fall” splash across the screen, outlaw Rufus Buck (Idris Elba) has already murdered two people, irrevocably changing a young boy’s life and setting the stage for an epic-scale shoot-em-up in the process. Set in the Old West, the Netflix feature has all the bells and whistles of a traditional Hollywood Western, but Samuel’s debut feature isn’t just a new spin on classics of the genre like “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” or “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.” This narrative is grounded in actual history.
Samuel’s world is populated by characters named after real-life Black figures who lived (and sometimes caused chaos) in the Old West. For Samuel and his star Jonathan Majors, who plays the revenge-minded Nat Love, it was about unearthing the true history of the American West and getting into the hearts and minds of lives lived and lost without the narrative of slavery or oppression. Just as essential: finding a way of turning that history, one rarely explored on the big screen, into a brand-new cinematic adventure.
“As a child, you see all these things on television, and you just love what you’re given,” Samuel said during a recent interview with IndieWire. “Then you get to an age where you want to start seeing yourself. The way I would see myself, I don’t relate to that. I can appreciate the story, but I can’t appreciate how you treat people of color. I can’t appreciate the depictions of these women in these Westerns.”
Once he understood that something was missing from what he saw on-screen for most of his life, Samuel started doing his own research. “I would just start reading more and looking for Black cowboys in the Old West,” he explained. It was there that Samuel unearthed the (true) stories of Buck and Love.
For years, Samuel had been constructing “The Harder They Fall” in his head. “If you take out just a fraction of history, you’ve skewed all of history,” he said. “The reason I wanted to do that is because all of the people I was speaking to were telling me Black people did not exist in the Old West — Black people were telling me that. I was like, ‘All right, I’m going to dead this argument once and forever, because when I do this film, it’s going to have all real characters in it that really existed.'”
In the film, Buck runs with a gang of like-minded outlaws. Cherokee Bill (LaKeith Stanfield) can unholster and shoot his pistol in a blink of an eye. In real life, the sharpshooter was responsible for the murder of eight men. In contrast, there’s not much known about Trudy Smith (Regina King). But in the film, she’s Buck’s right-hand woman and the mastermind behind the gang’s operation.
Love’s gang is a little bit more robust. His on-again, off-again lover, Stagecoach Mary (Zazie Beetz), stands with him but doesn’t take orders from anyone. In real life, she was the first Black woman postal service driver. There’s also Bill Pickett (Edi Gathegi), a famous stunt cowboy and seasoned rodeo star; Jim Beckwourth (RJ Cyler) who history remembers as a skilled fighter; and Cuffee (Danielle Deadwyler), a non-binary person whose loyalty is only to Mary.
After he was cast in the role, Majors used Nat Love’s autobiography, “The Life and Adventures of Nat Love Better Known in the Cattle Country as ‘Deadwood Dick’ by Himself” as a reference point for his character. “I kept that book with me for essentially the whole time,” Majors told IndieWire. “It’s the exploits that Nathaniel Love talked about for himself, that he was the best gunman, the best shooter, the best roper, the best all these things. I thought, this is great and very helpful for me, because now I can take that confidence that Nat had and place them into the new world that we’re in.”
Putting on the Western apparel and holstering a pistol made Majors genuinely feel like he was bringing Love back to life. “It was a lot of weekends in Santa Fe, New Mexico, working on the horses and battling sore legs and all these things,” he said. “But that was a part of it. That lent to how Nat moved, talked, walked, and all these things. The moment I hit New Mexico, I was Nat forward. I was sitting there in my little hacienda with my dogs. And still keeping the patterns and the practices that I had laid in, wearing the hats, wearing the jacket. I was trying to justify a lot of the behavior that he had. Why would he smoke? Why would he drink like that? I thought initially, well, it’s because of that trauma that he experienced as a young man.”
©Netflix/Courtesy Everett Collection
As much as Majors and the other actors embodied the characters and took on some aspects of their personas, Samuel wants to reiterate that they are fictional takes on real people. “I had one fundamental rule, keep the goodies good and keep the baddies bad,” he explained. “I used those as a template, but everything else is fictional. I didn’t keep their likeness at all; I couldn’t. The real Rufus Buck had biracial parents and died at 18. The real Cherokee Bill was biracial and looked nothing like LaKeith. It’s not a biopic. Stagecoach Mary wasn’t a singer. It’s a theme for everyone. Not a lot is written upon Gertrude Smith, except that she ran with a girl named Dolly Mickey, and they were pickpockets who wouldn’t stop at murder to get what they wanted. What I kept from that was purely their swag.”
The characters in “The Harder They Fall” also exist without white gaze, which is almost unheard of in Westerns. White characters appear just twice in the film, once during a trail hijacking and later, when Cuffee and Love enter an all-white town. Samuel made it a point to literally paint the town white. “What I tried to do with all of ‘The Harder They Fall’ is turn everything upside down and throw it on its head and defeat what we regard as stereotypical expectations,” Samuel explained. “To me it’s just awesome, and I was like, ‘I want it all white, buildings painted.’ I put white horses in there.”
And while he may have taken some liberties with those all-white sets, Samuel added plenty of other compelling pieces that were very much rooted in fact, including giving his female characters agency in the film. In real life, Stagecoach Mary and Trudy Smith’s stories were as astonishing as they are in the film. After being freed from slavery, Stagecoach Mary was a woman who reportedly “liked hard liquor and gunfights.”
“There’s no damsel in distress in this regard,” Samuel explained. “So it starts on the page, and then I build it out with the actors. With Treacherous Trudy Smith, little was known about her. But we know she came from Barbary Coast in San Francisco. Then she left, which meant she was well traveled.”
“The Harder They Fall” has been a balm for Majors who, like Samuel, longed to see his own image represented in cinema. “The Western cinema was so whitewashed,” he said. “America was whitewashed, narratives were whitewashed, so of course the Western was whitewashed, because it was a niche in a genre in an industry. There are certain narratives that don’t stand up now because people know better. But you can remake it with the proper epistemological perspective — with the actual truth of it. It’s not even reinventing; it’s like a restoration.”
The film is both entertaining and healing, for both its creators and audience. “‘The Harder They Fall’ has given us this healing,” Majors said. “The Western has a body, it’s been walking around crippled, … here it is in its complete form. We’re giving you a prescription to allow it to grow and be what it’s supposed to be. This is very important, because the Western serves as a love letter to America, a love letter to immigrants, a love letter to those who are driven to be free.”
Samuel hopes that “The Harder They Fall” will usher in a resurgence of the Western. “It died out because I don’t believe the cinema-going audience was being fed what they wanted to see,” he said. “That’s one of the big contributing factors, because some of the people I speak to insist that they don’t like Westerns, and other people I speak to insist that they do like them. But had they been given storylines that we relate to, we would’ve enjoyed them more. I know when this trailer dropped, people were like, ‘I don’t like Westerns, but I want to see this one.'”
“The Harder They Fall” is currently playing in theaters before heading to Netflix on Wednesday, November 3.