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Ignored by History: Black Cowboys Finally Get Their Due in The Harder They Fall

by Rebecca McGee 3 days ago in review

The star-studded cast of Netflix’s The Harder They Fall bring long forgotten black cowboys to life.

Photo: Netflix

The film

This melanated escapist tale features characters based on actual black cowboys and outlaws from the old west. Although the people were real, the events are entirely the creation of Jeymes Samuel, the writer and director of this indulgent western flick. It’s unlikely that any of these people ever met, but the film’s speculation is no less enthralling.

It’s your classic revenge story. Nat Love, our anti-hero, holds a grudge against Rufus Buck, a notorious outlaw, who murdered his parents in cold blood when Nat was just a kid. He grew up to be a prolific outlaw himself, stealing from other criminals and hunting down Rufus and the men who aided him on that fateful day.

The film has all the hallmarks of a typical western flick, dusty towns, sun-drenched showdowns, and guns that are always blazing, plus a little extra. Set mostly in towns painted in bright vibrant colors, populated entirely by black people, Samuel creates a black utopia that greatly contrasts with other films in this genre. A contrast that is made very clear in the bank robbery scene, when Nat and Cuffe ride into Maysville, a white town. The entire town is white, from the residents to the buildings, right down to the dirt. All white everything.

Photo: Netflix

Stunning performances by the all-star cast elevate this movie beyond measure. Veteran actors Idris Elba, playing Rufus Buck, Regina King, playing Trudy Smith, and Delroy Lindo, playing Bass Reeves were exquisite in their roles. Elba’s Rufus was a man of few words, but his every action, movement, and facial expression spoke multitudes. King’s Trudy was commanding, dynamic, and utterly evil. Her very presence enhanced each scene she was in.

Jonathan Majors’ performance as Nat was dazzling. He brought charm, sex appeal, and an element of danger to this complex role. Majors came to prominence in his role as Atticus Freeman in HBO’s Lovecraft Country. The performances of Zazie Beetz as Stagecoach Mary, Danielle Deadwyler as Cuffee, Lakeith Stanfield as Cherokee Bill, Edi Gathegi as Bill Pickett, and CJ Cyler as Jim Beckwourth were no less captivating.

When Nat learns that Rufus is freed from prison and is back home in Redwood, he sets off with Marshall Bass Reeves to exact revenge. His friends Bill, Jim, Mary, and Cuffee follow. They run into Wiley Escoe, the former mayor of Redwood and former friend of Rufus. He gives them information in exchange for his life. They don’t completely trust him.

The Harder They Fall has everything you could ask for in a revisionist western flick. There’s action, adventure, revenge, copious violence, romance, and even a few laughs. The soundtrack is banging. Unfortunately, the movie does fall into the tired old trope of the damsel in distress. Mary volunteers herself to go to Redwood, alone, to gather information. Nat objects of course, but Mary is a strong-willed independent woman, so off she goes…she’s taken hostage immediately.

Photo: Netflix

This is one glaring contradiction that simply cannot be excused. Mary is smart, she’s business savvy, and she used to be part of the Nat Love gang. She should’ve known better than to go into enemy territory. This only served the purpose of giving Nat someone to save, but that was pretty pointless since he was already heading to Redwood to kill Rufus. Mary does manage to do her own fighting, and she holds her own in a gun battle, that’s more than can be said for most damsels.

After a blood-pumping shootout, Nat and Rufus finally have their long-awaited showdown. Rufus takes this opportunity to drop a bombshell, he and Nat are brothers, half brothers to be exact. Rufus weaves a sordid tale of an abusive, murderous father, who abandoned him when he was a child. The reason he killed him and Nat’s mother was revenge and maybe even jealousy. This definitely made for an interesting twist, making Nat’s revenge bittersweet.

Impact

First, I want to say how much I loved this movie. I, like a lot of people, have always been interested in stories about the Wild West. The saloons, the dusty old towns, and of course the gun-toting cowpokes have always held a certain allure for me.

Unfortunately, there were never many stories that appealed to me as a black woman. The vast majority centered on a white male protagonist, with a white female love interest, fighting against a white male antagonist. Boring.

A few years back there was a western featuring a cast of black women, Gang of Roses. I loved it of course, even though it wasn’t a very good movie. For a while, it was all I had to nurture my dreams of a life in the old west. So, you can probably understand why this new Netflix movie means so much.

Photo: Netflix

Telling the stories of Nat Love and Rufus Buck is long overdue. Black history has often been ignored, or sometimes erased completely. Most of these characters are based on outlaws, criminals. But what was their crime? Some fought against gentrification, others stole to give their people a better life. Though their actions were criminal, the intent was honorable. Several of our most famous activists have criminal records.

This film’s biggest message, is that black people have been here for every major moment in American history. This movie is a step in the right direction.

This article was previously published on the author’s blog, The Little Black Book Society.

review

Rebecca McGee

Professional procrastinator, amateur otaku and quite possibly the most adequate wordsmith to ever avoid a blank page.

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