Writer and director Jeymes Samuel is not wrong when he says women and people of color have been treated poorly by the Hollywood western. Since the first days of the genre, he feels, they have been limited to roles of subservience and are more often positioned as a piece of scenery or narrative object than they are as people. Even the modern, high-concept efforts of directors since “Unforgiven” in 1992 typically fall short when it comes to gender and race representation.
Samuel has always wished this genre he has loved since childhood would do better. He made a strong statement to that effect in 2013 with the short-form shoot ‘em up “They Die by Dawn.” That project was just a proof-of-concept though. A test of themes and ideas Samuel has now fully realized in “The Harder They Fall” for Netflix.
Right from the opening credits, you know you are in for a non-traditional experience. Everything from the score to the art design promises a contemporary lens through which the tropes of outlaw lore can be experienced anew. It’s sad, and a little embarrassing, for me to draw attention to the all-Black principal cast because, in doing so, I run the risk of making that fact a novelty. It isn’t. But it is still a rarity, especially in a western. To move the camera so firmly away from white experience is a welcome, long-overdue revision to the national story we’ve been told for so long, and I applaud the entire team for it.
To craft his boisterous revenge story, Samuel has taken several legendary people (Nat Love, Jim Beckwourth, Mary Fields, Trudy Smith, Cherokee Bill, Bill Pickett, Rufus Buck) and plucked them from their separate times and places in history to assemble them, as he calls it, “Avengers-style” in a speculative shared world. That world is recognizable in the ways it mirrors our expectations for what old west landscapes and costumes should look like, but only as a starting point. Those and nearly every other production element are punched up significantly. The result is extravagant and operatic and very effective. Think Tarantino but dial down the cynicism a little and then turn the sincerity way up.
There’s an earnest joy behind every frame of “The Harder They Fall.” Even though Hollywood has trained us to view this kind of western reality as alternate, it felt more authentic than many others I’ve seen on film. It’s a small point, but I appreciated how proud and freshly painted the towns seemed, instead of weathered and pre-abandoned like most frontier movie settlements. Old for us shouldn’t look old for them. I hadn’t really thought of this as a common trap until Samuel refused to fall into it. Other traps, however, were too big to miss.
Samuel clearly loves his subject matter and the reverence he holds for its habits and customs is evident everywhere. But where the cinematography is elevated by this fidelity, the plot suffers from it. The expository vignettes, the gunfights, the romantic complexities, the comeuppances – they all happen exactly how and when you think they will. The A-list cast appears to be having a ton of fun with the snappy dialogue but, as incredible as they each are, they can only do so much with the thin story the words are telling. That said, I’m not sure how much story matters in “The Harder They Fall.” Maybe the style is so great, the substance just doesn’t need to be.
Jeymes Samuel has given us a brand-new view of the American West, complete with prosperous, autonomous Black cities and gunslinging heroes that finally match the truth of our diverse national populace. It’s a feast mostly for the eyes, but also a powerful argument for better representation in our historical entertainment.