It’s a shameful fact that many of the cinema’s most revered westerns feature less than a handful of black characters – even though history informs us that up to a quarter of the citizens forging new lives in the Old West were people of colour. So it would seem a propitious time for a cowboy film where black characters are centre stage and their white counterparts relegated to supporting roles. Directed – and co-written – by Jeymes Samuel, The Harder They Fall sets out to be a revisionist piece and to some degree it hits its targets. What a shame, then, that the main protagonists in this story are, almost without exception, a bunch of callous murderers, ready to obliterate anyone who stands in their way.
Who then are we supposed to identify with?
Nat Love (Jonathan Majors) is looking for vengeance against the man who killed his parents when he was a child and who carved a cross on his forehead with the tip of a knife. The charmer in question is Rufus Buck (Idris Elba), recently freed from prison and now seeking to recoup the $25,000 that Love’s gang took from him – money that his own followers have recently stolen from a train. But… his gang stole it first, right? So obviously it belongs to him!
Love, meanwhile, returns to his old stamping ground to reconnect with former lover, Mary Fields (Zazie Beetz), whom he hopes to marry one day, but first there’s the little matter of taking his revenge on Buck, who has returned to the all-black town of Redwood and removed the man he left in charge by pistol-whipping him and taking his place. It’s clear from the outset that Buck doesn’t plan to be a benevolent ruler, shooting a man in cold blood for having the temerity to question him about the steep taxes he’s planning to enforce. Buck is backed up by the equally malevolent Trudy Smith (Regina King) and fast draw merchant, Cherokee Bill (LaKeith Stanfield). As the two rival gangs square up to each other for a showdown, it can only end in bloodshed.
There are some elements in The Harder They Fall that I really like. The widescreen cinematography is gorgeous and the recreations of frontier towns are quite different from anything I’ve seen before. Furthermore, the decision to use contemporary reggae and township music as a soundtrack is an inspired move, lending a sense of urgency to the action. There’s also an expertly-handled climactic shoot out. All points in the film’s favour.
But every story needs characters that an audience is willing to root for and there’s a sad dearth of them here. Even US Marshal Bass Reeves (Delroy Lindo) seems to have no qualms about bending the rules when there’s money to be made. (Western scholars will doubtless recognise many of these names, because they are taken from historical characters, but there’s been no attempt to reproduce any of their actual accomplishments, which seems self-defeating.) All we learn of these people is that they’re quick on the trigger and the constant litany of shootings, beatings and stabbings becomes wearisome after a while. We’re probably supposed to identify with Nat Love, but the truth is, he’s not really all that different from his nemesis, Rufus Buck. He just shoots people with a smile on his face, while Rufus scowls.
So, while I agree this is an important release that’s come at exactly the right time, I just wish I cared more about the people who are being shot and bludgeoned to death right in front of me.
As it stands, this feels like a squandered opportunity. And that’s a real shame. Samuel is clearly a skilled filmmaker but he needs a stronger script to make this fly.