Jeymes Samuel’s boundlessly energetic, blood-spattered debut opens with the words: “These. People. Existed.” Not because it’s a biopic. Those insistent full-stops are making a point about the western as a genre, which has almost entirely ignored Black people for over 100 years. In the 1800s, an estimated one in four cowboys was Black, but in movies they’re mostly square-jawed white men. Samuel’s cast is almost entirely Black. Some square-jawed, some not.
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Samuel’s intent isn’t entirely to correct history. He makes some incisive points in his story – about taking power if nobody will give it to you, about the role of women, about who gets to write history – but he’s not only here to give another view on the past. More than anything, he’s here to make a very fun, funny, perfectly-cast western.
The film opens with a boy, Nat Love, watching as his parents are killed in front of him. Some years later, that boy is now a man (Jonathan Majors), whose entire life is dedicated to avenging his parents’ death. He’s killed all but one of those responsible and he’s finally tracked down the leader: Rufus Buck (Idris Elba). It’s a classic revenge pic with Love and a small ragtag gang facing down Buck’s deadly crew.
The cast is exceptional, including Regina King, Zazie Beetz, LaKeith Stanfield and Delroy Lindo. Majors may be the least famous of the ensemble but he leaves the biggest impression. He swaggers onto screen like a movie star, not a newcomer. Some of the most enjoyable scenes are between him and Beetz, flirtily bickering then blowing away bad guys.
There’s a fair bit of self-consciousness to Samuel’s directing style, with split-screens, slow-mo, winking subtitles, and lots of rat-a-tat editing. Much of it has the feel of unpolished Tarantino, but since Tarantino’s been openly pinching from Black filmmakers for years it seems fair enough to take a little back. If it is rather mannered, it doesn’t detract from the fun. The final third is essentially one long shoot-out, a hurricane of bullets and blood, set to a propulsive soundtrack (curated by Jay-Z). It’s clear Samuel is determined that every moment should look cool, but it does, so who cares if he’s very aware of it?
The Harder They Fall is both-barrels filmmaking. It doesn’t allow the energy to flag for a single second. As a genre, the western can often seem a bit old-fashioned, the kind of thing your dad likes, but Samuel blows all the dust off and makes it feel fresh, young and vital.
- Director: Jeymes Samuel
- Starring: Jonathan Majors, Idris Elba, Zazie Beetz
- Release date: November 3 (Netflix)