There’s a cruel irony working against Hollywood’s efforts to diversify: For nearly a century, the industry depicted the world as a place dominated by white, straight, able-bodied men. The movies typically relegated women and people of color to supporting and subservient roles, while excluding (or else vilifying) queer and handicapped characters. As a result, entire generations have been raised on lopsided and inaccurate representations of our past — that Jesus was white, for example — to the extent that they don’t necessarily believe it when Black actors appear in situations where they played a significant (off-screen) role. Like the American West.
Well, as Jeymes Samuel’s stylish outlaw revenge saga “The Harder They Fall” insists from the outset, “These. People. Existed.” — white letters punched through a black screen like someone blasted it with shotgun pellets. The movie, which kicked off the BFI London Film Festival with a bang, isn’t some fantasy Western full of made-up characters (not that there’s anything wrong with that, as gonzo oaters like South Korea’s “The Good the Bad the Weird” have demonstrated) but an all-star assembly of real-life Black cowboys, including Nat Love (Jonathan Majors), Stagecoach Mary (Zazie Beets) and Cherokee Bill (LaKeith Stanfield).
Perhaps midway through a movie in which the Civil War is over, slavery has ended and all the leading roles are played by Black actors, Nat and his gang ride into a town of rich, terrified-looking white folks. The town has literally been whitewashed: Every plank, sign and stoop has been painted white, so conspicuously that audiences ought to find themselves noticing just how artificial it all looks — something that may never have occurred to them when watching a Western in which no Black actors appear.
After robbing the bank, Nat and company return to Redwood City, a frontier town bursting with color — which is also no accident. (New Mexico’s Cerro Pelon Movie Ranch stands in for most locations.) Everyone here is Black, and the notion of “good guys” and “bad guys” isn’t so clear, since they’re basically all wanted men. And women. Everyone fears bandit Rufus Buck (Idris Elba), also a real person, albeit liberally fictionalized here. But three of the film’s most compelling characters wear dresses, at least some of the time: Mary, her gender-defying right-hand “man” Cuffee (Danielle Deadwyler) and “Treacherous” Trudy Smith (Regina King), who rides with Rufus.
In the opening scene, Rufus bangs on the door of a frontier cabin, shoots the family and carves a cross into the forehead of young Nat. “Some time later” in Texas, Nat has grown up into “Lovecraft Country” star Majors, who’s got one of those faces that holds the camera, whether it’s seen from afar on horseback or staring directly into the lens in a Sergio Leone-style extreme close-up.
Nat has spent the better part of his life tracking down and taking revenge on the men who raided his home all those years ago. The only one who remains is Rufus Buck himself, safely behind bars — but not for long. In the film’s most effective set-piece, Rufus’ posse stop a train and bust him out of a heavy iron vault. Then they gun down all the white soldiers hired to transport him, but not without cause.
A singer with an interest in and aptitude for directing, Samuel is no stranger to the genre, having helmed the striking 2013 Western “They Die by Dawn,” an impressive, medium-length showcase featuring the late Michael Kenneth Williams as Nat Love and Erykah Badu as Stagecoach Mary. Though plenty accomplished, that project was like a practice run for “The Harder They Fall,” which focuses on the score that needs settling between Nat and Rufus. It’s a personal matter, and Rufus had his reasons, we learn. As one character puts it, “I’ve seen the Devil, and Rufus Buck ain’t him. The Devil’s white.”
While the film doesn’t feel overtly political, through sheer power of representation, it’s shaking up the very restrictive codes of — and finding fresh life in — a genre that carbon-copied itself into oblivion via mid-’50s TV series like “Gunsmoke” and “Rawhide.” Samuel isn’t inventing anything here by shifting the attention to nonwhite antiheroes. Oscar Micheaux was making Black Westerns a century ago, and the big screen saw notable examples via Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte in “Buck and the Preacher” and Mario Van Peebles’ “Posse.” Still, the perception remains that the West was colonized by white cowboys facing off against black-hat villains (also white), while ridding the territory of Indians.
As much fun as Majors, Elba, Beetz and King are to watch in roles that allow for plenty of scenery chewing (and oh what scenery!), it’s Stanfield who steals the show here as the part-Indian, part-Black Cherokee Bill. So memorably laconic elsewhere, the actor stretches to create a charismatic character (Deadwyler’s Cuffee comes a close second), chewing on his cheroot and drawling speeches that would be right at home in “Django Unchained” or “The Hateful Eight.”
Samuel’s two biggest influences seem to be Leone and Tarantino, which makes for a very style-forward presentation, sometimes at the expense of a clean, straightforward story (it’s unnecessarily complicated, and the dialogue is too clever by half). He can’t match either master in their capacity to draw out the tension till one’s neck hairs prickle in anticipation. Rather, Samuel thinks like a musician, using gunshots and camera cuts to set the tone. That tactic elevates Nat Love’s killing of an outlaw in priest drag, as each bullet freezes the frame to deliver another word of the film’s title. Later, he leans on Barrington Levy’s reggae classic “Here I Come,” remixed with long silent stretches between drum beats, to make Rufus’ reunion with his gang feel iconic.
Like “Young Guns” or “Tombstone” — the rare recent(ish) Westerns to have connected with audiences — “The Harder They Fall” is committed to putting its stamp on larger-than-life legends. The fact that their names aren’t nearly as well-known as Billy the Kid or Wyatt Earp makes the film all the more compelling, especially in the dot-dot-dot coda that follows the final shootout, leaving room either for further exploits or for other directors to come along and expand upon the same characters.