Above: (From left) Danielle Deadwyler, Jonathan Majors and Zazie Beetz star in “The Harder They Fall.” (Photo/Netflix)
Movie review: "The Harder They Fall," directed by Jeymes Samuel, starring Jonathan Majors, Zazie Beetz, Idris Elba, Regina King. Streaming on Netflix.
Westerns used to be one of the most popular of genres, not just in literature but also in movies and television. As with most kinds of cultural tastes, though, that once-revered genre gradually evolved into something both less prevalent and far less mythical.
The age of the classic Western began to change in the 1960s, a time when the United States itself was undergoing one of its many social revolutions. Nineteen-fifties-era mythology was out, a time of questioning traditional attitudes had begun.
More and more, the Western turned up only occasionally, and when it did it tended to take a starker, more cynical form – Clint Eastwood’s Oscar-winning 1992 Western “Unforgiven” being a prime example.
But just as some myths fade away, others typically rise to take their place. And if they – as always – tend to have little in common with the actual historical record, truth is never the point of myth anyway. As Joseph Campbell once wrote, “Mythology is not a lie, mythology is poetry, it is metaphorical.”
Take the Netflix film “The Harder They Fall,” written and directed by Jeymes Samuel and starring a who’s-who list of today’s Black actors, from Idris Elba to Regina King, LaKeith Stanfield to Zazie Beetz – with relative newcomer Jonathan Majors stepping into the lead role.
While the characters these actors play were real – Samuel begins his story by insisting “These (period) People (period) Existed (period)” – the tale that he spins is pure fiction. Yes, there really was a Nat Love (played here by Majors), a Rufus Buck (played by Elba) a Stagecoach Mary (played by Beetz) and a Cherokee Bill (played by Stanfield).
There existed, too, Buffalo Soldiers, Black cowboys and gunslingers, not to mention Black homesteaders and officers of the law. Yet those who appear in traditional Westerns, do so as, at best, tertiary characters in support of white protagonists. It’s past time, then, for their stories to be told as well – even if in metaphor – which Samuel is only too happy to do.
Building on a blend of the Spaghetti Westerns of the 1960s and the Blaxploitation films of the 1970s, “The Harder They Fall” is, at its heart, a story of revenge. We first encounter the outlaw Love as an 11-year-old boy who witnesses the cold-blooded murder of his parents and then suffers having his face scarred by the killer, who we later learn is the fierce bandit Buck.
Two decades later, Love’s gang – including fictional representations of the real-life Bill Pickett (played by Edi Gathegi) and Jim Beckworth (played by RJ Cyler) – engage in their specialty: stealing from bank robbers. Only this time the loot they steal belongs to none other than Buck.
Love isn’t worried, though, because he knows Buck is serving a term in Yuma Territorial Prison. What he doesn’t know is that, during a daring train robbery, Buck’s confederates have freed their boss. Among the hold-up crew are Cherokee Bill and Trudy Smith (yet another real-life character played by King). Love also eventually discovers that Buck is holed up in the town of Redwood City and that he wants, he needs, his money back.
What follows is a series of events, including Love declaring his devotion to Beetz’s Stagecoach Mary, her being taken captive by Buck, and then Love’s crew being forced to rob a bank in a comically literal all-white town to get her back. All of this leads up to the obligatory final shoot-out that, “Magnificent Seven”-style, ends up with the violent deaths of several principal characters.
Speaking of which, some viewers may get turned off by the film’s overt blood-letting, though Samuel – in just his first full-length feature – can’t begin to rival Quentin Tarantino in that arena. What others no doubt will appreciate is the film’s music, both the score written by Samuel – a noted composer and musician who also is the brother of the singer Seal – and the songs he chose for the soundtrack, featuring such artists as Jay-Z, Lauryn Hill, Seal (of course) and Samuel himself.
What’s most obvious about “The Harder They Fall” is Samuel’s love of the traditional Western formula, which makes the film the closest thing to a John Ford/Sergio Leone production that’s been released in years. Maybe decades.
Which just goes to show – modern myths aren’t just metaphorical, they can also be exercises in irony.
An edited version of this review was broadcast previously on Spokane Public Radio.