My parents made us watch Posse so many times that I could quote it at the age of 15. What my mom called “the real west” was the father and son Van Peebles (Melvin Van Peebles and Mario Van Peebles) on horseback, shooting bad guys, and bowing to no (white) man. It has been ages since I last viewed that film, but I do remember thinking about how the West was once Black. And, how they took that away from us with a blue-eyed hero who never could have existed, but still erased ALL of our history in the space. The Harder They Fall sets the record straight. It picks up the thread that Posse laid down. The film has a funny way of bucking all the trends and taboos of Western films while embodying them all at the same time. It’s an odd, yet very entertaining cinematic journey, that’s for sure.
There Are No Damsels Here
Regina King and Zazie Beatz are the lead women in the film. That’s obvious. Unlike the women of the West that we’ve seen, these two seem to be in charge of far more than their WANTED boyfriends. At one point, Mary approaches Rufus Buck (Idris Elba), with a buy-out offer. As she talks about her buying and selling efforts over the previous months, I realized that StageCoach Mary had franchises before the word existed!
Mary is later beaten and held hostage, not because her offer was low, but because she came to the wrong person with the terms. Trudy explained, “It’s my name on the building.” Since Rufus spends his time either in prison or on the run, it is safe to say that Trudy probably did own all the property and businesses the people like Mary believed belonged to Rufus.
This was after Trudy’s bold and brilliant train-jacking where she jailbroke Rufus. Cherokee Bill, played by Lakeith Stanfield seems to be her right hand, but he clearly takes all his orders from Trudy, only offering gentle suggestions when her decisions seem less than favorable. Trudy shoots a man off of a train who was yelling at her and about to call her a name.
Cherokee Bill: “Maybe he was going to say, nincompoop.”
Trudy: “We ain’t no nincompoop.”
She then orders the men in the posse to shoot anyone who says any word beginning with an “n”. Trudy and Mary don’t need a hero. Even when Mary was captured by Trudy and Rufus, she held her own. These are some great models of American Western women.
No Alpha Males Either
Despite their size and the damage they cause, Rufus and his opponent Nat Love, played by Jonathan Majors, are not true alphas. They defer to the women and prefer to stay in the back, against the wall, stepping forward to provide muscle whenever things went left. Otherwise, the women delegated, organized, and led the posse. When the shots ring out, the ladies are right there alongside their men. Watch the interactions closely in the scenes where all of the posse is assembled. There is a subtle deference to the woman in charge before verbally acknowledging her.
The Harder They Fall is not exempt from displays of toxic masculinity. Jim (RJ Cyler) is itching to challenge someone to a draw, in order to solidify his position as the fastest draw. Bill dismisses him and Cuffee (Danielle Deadwyler) obliges, but as a nonbinary person, is subject to slanderous teasing. Cuffee’s arc is where the toxicity really shows, naturally and the LGBTQ members of society are the targets of such behavior. That hasn’t changed. However, it was great to see a Western film that had dialed back the Alpha male rhetoric a bit.
I must warn you that Rufus throws whatever toxic reserves they have at Nat during their penultimate showdown. Here, the rhetoric actually helps us understand Rufus and his intentions. There is one doozy of a plot twist too. Bass Reeves (Delroy Lindo) appears in the film and he knows better than to cross Trudy AND Mary!
That’s Not a Western Score, is It?
The film plot and actors create a stellar product that will keep audiences riveted to the screen. However, I know I occasionally lifted my attention from the narrative, because I just know that song playing is modern R&B bassline or a familiar reggae hook. The Harder They Fall even comes with a blackened score that takes the traditional country elements and infuses them with the sounds of Blackness that is so familiar. The music is definitely not what would have played in Redwood back then, but it still feels like a fit.
The reason is that film was created with all the elements of some of the most memorable white Westerns. From the aesthetic of the opening (and closing) credits to some of the quips and fight tricks, those familiar with the old-school Westerns will definitely recognize elements from their favorite films in this one.
The Embodiment of Unapologetic Blackness
The Harder They Fall is Black and makes no apologies for it. Unlike Posse, the only prominent white people are encountered when these Black outlaws venture into blatantly white spaces.
The train that transported an imprisoned Rufus is one space. The bank that Nat’s gang later robbed is another. Listen, if you didn’t find humor in the stark whiteness of Maysville, then you really shouldn’t be screening this film.
Jeymes Samuel has somehow conjured and delivered a masterpiece to the Black community and the Netflix viewership. It’s one that will shake the current Western genre to its core. I only hope the change brings more authentic unbleached stories of the American West. (You do know that all the characters in The Harder They Fall are based on real Black people, right?) I just know that Delroy Lindo has ruined the Lone Ranger forever, as he is the perfect fit and voice of Reeves. There’s so much more to discuss. Let us know what you loved about the film.
The Harder They Fall now streaming on Netflix. It is available in select theaters.
Rating 5 of 5
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