At the end of this film, two characters ride off into the sunset. The imagery isn’t laboured but it’s there and the moment is a perfect microcosm of the whole film; The Harder They Fall ticks all the boxes of a regular Western but it is all just done from a slightly different angle.
The thing here is that almost all of the players are black. There have been many black characters in Westerns before of course but this film seems to be addressing these representations and saying, ‘no, this is how this should be done’.
Unlike in so many films of this type, none of the main players are a novelty, they are just people living their lives in the trans Mississippi area in the second half of the 19th Century. Their ethnicity is not irrelevant though, director Jeymes Samuel is careful to remind you of it and the otherness this presents is key to the film. The point where they go to a ‘white town’ finds a simple but genius way of literally showing the contrast that every one of the central gang would have seen in every face and every building as they ride through the streets. There is also no use of the N word which is normally flung around in any Western that wants to show racism and abuse in these less enlightened times. You almost hear a person say it at one point here, probably, but this is smartly averted in a way that shows the strength of black characters rather than highlighting the lower status that they are struggling against.
In fact, in this film Samuel seems to be demonstrably addressing the work of one other director in particular. Tarantino’s movies regularly feature excessive use the N word as he features empowered black characters in various settings, including in The Hateful Eight and Django Unchained a very similar setting to this one. This film shows how this approach is just not necessary and more than a little reductive. If you need proof of this as being Samuel’s direct attempt to challenge to Tarantino then consider that this movie was initially subtitled The Notorious Nine.
The other way in which this takes on Tarantino is in the tremendous coolness of the whole thing. We are definitely in the same arena here, with gunplay, monologues, criminals, heists, tense and chatty indoor meetings and liberal amounts of blood. Not since Tarantino has a new director arrived on the scene with such style and confidence and it is hard to think that this is Samuel’s only feature film. Under his stage name The Bullits, the UK singer/songwriter, producer and video maker (he is also Seal’s brother) has produced a number of music promos and shorts but this is his first full length movie and it is an incredible debut. Bear in mind that the producer is Lawrence Bender who worked with Tarantino on most of his films up until Inglourious Basterds (so not the cowboy movies) and I am sure all of this is a statement of intent.
The story follows outlaw Nat Love who is on a revenge mission against those who did him wrong when he was a child. His final target is the unimaginably brutal Rufus Buck and the film follows the two of them and their compadres as they head toward a violent collision. Both men bring several loyal friends along for the ride and despite a main cast of nine, everyone gets a decent amount of screen time and good character development. The plot itself is also involving as the heroes get themselves into situations you can’t see how they will get out of and new motivations are revealed to show that Love may not be the only one with retribution on his mind.
Ultimately The Harder They Fall is just another Western but it’s a really good one from an exciting new voice in cinema. Samuel clearly has a love of this genre as his previous music work has also shown, but if he brings this same approach, this mix of realism and metaphor, to a range of other movies then we are in for more treats.
The Ripley Factor:
The cast are all excellent, from Jonathan ‘where did this guy suddenly come, he’s amazing?’ Majors and Idris ‘oh cool, it’s Idris Elba’ Elba as the central combatants, to reliables LaKeith Stanfield and Delroy Lindo and newbies Edi Gathegi and RJ Cyler. In amongst these though are three great performances from Danielle Deadwyler and the superb Zazie Beatz and Regina King. King has proven herself before but Beetz gives a performance of captivating intensity that we have not seen from her before. The two of them, who essentially play the two gang leaders second in commands are also, also very cool. In terms of them being second to men you don’t need to worry about this from a feminist point of view either because both, Beetz’s Mary Field in particular, are independent women with their own agency. To me, they are the heroes of the film (although only one of them is a hero is on the side of the angels). When they finally meet it is explosive in a way that you commonly see from men but still without compromising an inch of their femininity.