Plenty of recent media stories on Jeymes Samuel’s “The Harder They Fall” have played up the Western’s all-Black cast, with many describing the film as a “corrective” to the popular Hollywood image of an all-white Old West. But a cursory Google search will offer that this credit has been attributed to a number of other titles that came long before Samuel and even the oldest members of his all-star cast were even born.
The Western film genre is unique to a specific period and place and is, as such, instantly recognizable. The cinema helped immortalize the cowboy, rendering him, in many ways, inseparable from its cultural tradition. The cinema has also immortalized the cowboy as a white man, erasing the Black Americans who made up one-fourth of the wranglers and riders of the American frontier.
While some are quick to groan at every instance of colorblind casting, those same cries for “historical accuracy” or “reverence to source material” have been mostly silent about the century-old Hollywood practice of reassigning POC characters to white actors, while reshaping the history of the Old West as a demonstration of a kind of “manifest destiny” from which non-white people have been effectively “canceled,” to use social media parlance.
A fact: after the American Civil War, former slaves left the Old South on horseback and on foot for the Old West, seen as a land of opportunity for the industrious and adventurous, to carve out new lives for themselves, with a freedom they’d never experienced. But these courageous men and women have yet to be fully and rightfully recognized in film history.
Hollywood Westerns were initially typically low-budget productions — and Black Westerns even more so, as it was believed that they didn’t have mass appeal, largely playing to African American audiences. Consequently, Black Western history has been mostly forgotten, or, at best, marginalized.
Black cowboys began to really have a presence in Hollywood beginning in the 1930s. In 1937, the Spencer Williams- and Herb Jeffries-starring “Harlem on the Prairie” was billed as the first “all-colored” Western musical.
In fact, Jeffries, who belongs on any list of the wonderful cowboy heroes, heroines, and supporting players that rode the silver screen from the 1930s through the 1950s, starred in a series of low-budget Westerns (B-Westerns) featuring all-black casts. Those include “Two-Gun Man From Harlem” (1938), “Rhythm Rodeo” (1938), “The Bronze Buckaroo” (1939), and “Harlem Rides the Range” (1939). Finding every single one of these films in an environment where streaming rules will be a challenge, but worth the effort.
In the 1960s, Black actors began to appear in more mainstream Westerns, but other than Woody Strode’s leading roles in “Sergeant Rutledge” (1960) and “The Professionals” (1966) — he also made his mark in spaghetti Westerns, notably Sergio Leone’s “Once Upon a Time in the West” (1968) — they were cast primarily in peripheral roles, like Sidney Poitier in his first oater, Ralph Nelson’s “Duel at Diablo” (1966).
Poitier effectively remedied this when he decided to make his directorial debut with “Buck and the Preacher” (1972), in which he also co-starred with long-time pal Harry Belafonte, who also produced the film.
Additionally, any conversation about Black Westerns wouldn’t be complete without a mention of blaxploitation-heavy Fred Williamson’s body of work, which included a bevy of salutes to the genre, including titles like “The Legend of N*gger Charley” (1972), “The Soul of N*gger Charley” (1973), “Boss N*gger” (1974), “Joshua” (1976), “Take a Hard Ride” (1975), “Adiós Amigo” (1975), and others. His use of the so-called “N-word” in the titles of a few of these films may be jarring at first, but it was an intentionallly defiant act by the burly actor/writer/director and former NFL star, whose brand of on- and off-screen machismo were mostly unmatched at the time. His pal Jim Brown, also a former NFL star turned actor with a few Westerns on his resume, was his main competition.
And even “Shaft” himself, Richard Roundtree, dabbled in the genre for a spell, starring in “Charley-One-Eye” (1973), two years after his breakout role as “the Black private dick that’s a sex machine to all the chicks.”
And while Westerns aren’t produced as frequently as they once were, there have been signs of improved recognition of the African American presence in the Old West, with many finding inspiration in the narrative of the African American regiments — AKA Buffalo Soldiers — that fought in the mid- to late 1800s, protecting Western territories at the end of the Civil War. Mario Van Peebles’ “Posse” (1993) and Danny Glover in “Buffalo Soldiers” (1997) are the most prominent.
More recently, Jamie Foxx and Samuel L. Jackson received top billing in “Django Unchained” (2012) and “The Hateful Eight” (2015), while in the 2016 remake, Denzel Washington led “The Magnificent Seven.”
Samuel’s “The Harder They Fall” does acknowledge history by featuring real-life legendary Black men and women of the Old West. Although a fictional film, its characters are based on real cowboys, lawmen, and outlaws of the 19th century.
The opening of the movie reminds audiences of this fact. They include Bill Pickett, a real-life cowboy, who starred in the first Black Western, the silent five-reeler “The Bull Dogger,” in 1921. In “The Harder They Fall,” Pickett is played by Edi Gathegi.
Stories like that of Pickett’s, as well as legendary lawman Bass Reeves (inspiration for The Lone Ranger) have been crying out for big budget Hollywood studio treatment, and there has been the occasional mention, especially of Reeves, who is played by Delroy Lindo in “The Harder They Fall.” But these irregular instances have tended to be more akin to sidebars (for example, Reeves is mentioned in three episodes of HBO’s “Watchmen,” portrayed by Jamal Akakpo) in contrast to the way the lives of white Western legends like Wyatt Earp and Billy the Kid have been immortalized in American mythology via a variety of film appearances that tell their respective stories.
It’s possible that “The Harder They Fall” might force Hollywood to restore the real Black cowboy to their rightful place in Western lore. There’s certainly no shortage of real-life source material to build on. Enterprising screenwriters could take their pick of the larger-than-life characters in Samuel’s Netflix movie, whose individual stories could carry entire films or episodic television series.
While audiences wait to see what the pomp and circumstance around “The Harder They Fall” might lead to, here are a handful of Black Westerns worth a look right now.
This is by no means an exhaustive list (including every film mentioned in this brief intro), nor even films that are highly recommended; but, as the cliched saying goes, for an understanding and appreciation of the present and anticipation the future, look to the past.