The Harder They Fall review: Netflix’s slick Black Western is defiant, not deep

“While the events of this story are fictional… These. People. Existed.”

Jeymes Samuel’s Black-centric star-studded Western The Harder They Fall opens on that bold, artistically versatile note. Every significant character in Samuel’s puffed up style-over-story directorial launching obtains their name from a historical African-American cowboy or hooligan. By putting them in a bloody, slick spaghetti Western, Samuel can take the liberty to remake their legends in his image, for a varied modern impressive.

It’s simple to entirely applaud The Harder They Fall on the premises of representation, however the real benefits of that standard aren’t apparent, offered the historic competitors. Black Westerns started with Richard C. Kahn’s 1930s movies, then removed throughout the 1970s along with Blaxploitation, with movies like Dollar and the Preacher and Thomasine & Bushrod. In the 1990s, they discovered brand-new opportunities, like Rosewood. The Harder They Fall takes its preliminary hint from Mario Van Peebles’ Posse, a 1993 precursor Black ensemble Western starring Blair Underwood, Tiny Lester, and Pam Grier. Like Posse, The Harder They Fall fixates an outlaw child looking for vengeance for his killed preacher daddy.

Samuel’s variation of the story focuses on Nat Love (Jonathan Majors), an outlaw leader with a popular cross sculpted in his forehead by the guy who killed his daddy. Love is out for a solo vengeance, however he can’t totally shake his faithful gang, consisting of relaxing Expense Pickett (Edi Gathegi), brazen Stagecoach Mary (Zazie Beetz), quick-draw specialist Jim Beckworth (RJ Cyler), and unflinching Cuffee (Danielle Deadwyler), along with well known lawman Bass Reeves (Delroy Lindo). The killer, the well-known Rufus Dollar (Idris Elba), has his own solidified team to match: callous Trudy Smith (Regina King) and sly Cherokee Expense (LaKeith Stanfield) back his efforts to manage a town, apparently to safeguard the Black citizens he keeps under his thumb.

Jonathan Majors, Delroy Lindo, and RJ Cyler, in vintage Old West costumes, stand outside on a street at night in The Harder They Fall.

Image: David Lee/Netflix

Apart from the star-studded ensemble, with a few of the stars absolutely miscast, this movie is just groundbreaking in the sense that it was created for streaming. Its aesthetic appeals are more obtrusively loud than elegant or ostentatious. Its story is too minor to support the overlong runtime. The natural Western landscape, rendered synthetically, does not have vastness. Samuel’s The Harder They Fall doesn’t increase to the impressive scale of its spaghetti and Blaxploitation affects: The category has actually never ever felt so little and streaming-friendly as it performs in this tawdry misadventure.

While variations of these epic figures did exist, it’s uncertain what story Samuel wishes to outline them. Few of these figures are well-written. Nobody’s most likely to leave this romp understanding more about the historic Dollar, Love, or Mary. This is a fantastical reimagining, however it’s uncertain what legend Samuel is attempting to develop. Does the simple sight of Black folks on the screen function as his thesis? Is the movie simply home entertainment, or does it have a message? Samuel end up captured in between that surface area, and any much deeper concepts he might want.

He midway attempts to imbue The Harder They Fall with love: Nat Love and Stagecoach Mary are a tempestuous product. He brings his dead mom’s wedding event ring around, trying to find an opportunity to proposing to Mary. However none of the sensuality in between these characters is from another location credible. Every note Beetz hits as the brooding Mary rings false, from her laughably cartoonish Southern drawl to her exaggerated strut. Majors plays Love as though he’s in a character study, relying on minute choices to build a personality. But in a movie bursting with big performances, his nuanced approach puts him in an altogether different film than his counterparts.

In fact, the only actor in this movie perfectly suited for a Western is Lindo, to the point where it’s a surprise that he’s never been in one before. He has the gravitas and frame of Gary Cooper. Part of that is by design: His character, Bass Reeves, represents the old school of Western lawmen. It makes sense for him to recall the genre’s classics while the younger actors bring a fresh, modern spin and Black cool to their archetypes. Samuel isn’t the first person to inject the genre with Black swagger: Will Smith did so with steampunk flair in Wild Wild West. But while these characters have individual verve, they don’t complement each other. Even with good rapport in between King and Elba, or between Cyler and Deon Cole as Buck’s former ally Wiley Escoe, the writing provides few reasons why these disparate characters united under a single banner before the events of the film.

Regina King holds a knife to Zazie Beetz’s face as the two talk in an Old West sheriff’s office with a jail cell behind them in The Harder They Fall.

Photo: David Lee/Netflix

For instance, Buck’s bandits have assembled to create a “Promised Land” in the all-Black town of Redwood City. Its name closely resembles the real-life, predominantly Black Florida settlement at the center of John Singleton’s historical Black Western Rosewood, where white rioters massacred the affluent Black population. Samuel’s town is painted with opulent hues: vibrant pinks, lush reds, and verdant greens. Everything is Black-owned, from the homes and businesses to the government.

However apart from those aesthetics, Samuel doesn’t illuminate why this town is a promised land, apart from the presumed lack of white residents. It’s implied that Rufus has a vision for this settlement, and that he wants to stave off white interlopers and racial bloodshed. But he never fully offers his thesis, past demanding the residents pay a heavy tax for his protection. His Edenic dream appears to be an artifice, but it’s unclear whether he or his followers actually believe in it as anything more than a shakedown.

The aesthetics of The Harder They Fall look fake rather than stylish, and off-puttingly slick rather than fantastical. Redwood City is too clean, with nary a speck of dust or mud to add character. Costume designer Antoinette Messam uses a puzzling effect to age some of the clothing, such as hats and some jackets, and Buck’s striped prison garb. But her work looks fresh off a clothing rack rather than weathered or worn. The rendered night sky surrounding Redwood makes the landscape feel claustrophobic and fake, entrapping the town in a VFX snowglobe which shrinks its scale.

There’s copious blood from the dynamically shot slick gunfights. Samuel’s penchant for using freeze-frames to punctuate violent scenes recalls the similarly nervy work of Quentin Tarantino. Samuel mostly composed or remixed the music himself — he’s an established British musician under the stage name The Bullitts, and he soundtracks the action with perfect homages to Sergio Leone, mixed with modern hip-hop and reggae beats. (He also brings in his brother, musical artist Seal, to collaborate on and perform one number.) But these striking components of the film add few hints of tension or suspense to the narrative. Elba is particularly underused as the film’s primary villain: In the biggest gun fight between Redwood’s warring gangs, he watches from his office window.

The stakes required to conjure dramatic momentum often fight each other to gain recognition in the story. Love’s vengeance quest, Buck’s vague dream of a Black utopia, Reeves’ determination to arrest Buck, and half a dozen minor personal subplots all emerge and submerge throughout the film, but no particular arc is ever offered so much room to breathe that viewers have time to get invested in the outcome. By the time Samuel reveals the information that’s meant to help define these characters and their conflicts, the overloaded visuals and story have beaten any sense of meaningful human connection into oblivion.

Regina King, Idris Elba, and LaKeith Stanfield in Western duds, arrayed across the street of an Old West town in The Harder They Fall.

Photo: David Lee/Netflix

The prospects of a Black Western with this much star power invited hopes of a paradigm shift that would allow more of these movies to be made, and fight the enduring, dangerous Western-based myth that America’s history was primarily white. These huge productions promising change through representation often do invite us to focus on their importance, to the point where we backseat the actual quality of the movie. But Samuel isn’t interested in telling real people’s stories, choosing between glut and substance, or providing a worthwhile political or emotional conceit. And all those things are important for a movie that’s out to make a difference.

Instead, he’s remade the Western not wholly in the image of Black folks, but in the image of a Netflix motion picture — a low-impact, high-prestige, easily digestible streaming project. Never has the Western category looked so small and devoid of meaning. The Harder They Fall is a deliberate step forward for onscreen representation of historical Black figures. However it isn’t as great as it requires to be to make those names unforgettable to a nation that’s forgotten them.

The Harder They Fall debuts in theaters on Oct. 22, and on Netflix Nov. 3.

Jobber Wiki author Frank Long contributed to this report.