Idris Elba Jonathan Majors Regina King LaKeith Stanfieldm Zazie Beetz
Danielle Deadwyler Ed Gathegi Delroy Lindo
This is a western where you might feel “wrung dry” by the end. It’s a bit of a spoof on westerns in general, but it is also serious in demonstrating that black faces were ubiquitous throughout the post Civil War west, even among the cowboys. The subject of the movie, Nat Love, was actually a cowboy sometime after the Civil War when his parents became sharecroppers, but he decided at age 16 when he had earned a bit of money he left home to see the west. He floated around for a time, being a ranch hand, a cattle driver, and a protector of herds from rustlers. Soon, he became a marksman with a reputation, and competed in rodeos for prize money. After he married and settled down, he left the cowboy life, but wrote and published his autobiography, Life and Adventures of Nat Love, Better Known in the Cattle Country as ‘Deadwood Dick’, by Himself.
The filmmakers have not based their story on the autobiography; they are clear about the fact that their movie is fictional, although they do allow up front that “These. People. Existed.” Writer-director Jeymes Samuel and his co-writer Boaz Yakin mix together various historical personalities interacting with one another in ways that spring from their imaginations. Specifically, they tell of two groups of gangs in the west going after one another after the leader of one, Rufus Buck (Elba) had killed the parents of the leader of the other, Nat Love (Majors), when he was a boy, leaving a tell-tale scar from a knife on his forehead. (Incidentally, the purpose of this scar is made clear in the last minutes of the movie.) For an account of some of the historical figures on which characters are based, go to Screenrant’s Faefyx Collington review: https://screenrant.com/harder-they-fall-real-life-true-story-history-characters/
The Harder They Fall is noteworthy in its conceptualization of black characters in a western, the mixing up of historical figures—whether named or not—with fictional ones,
and the quality of the storytelling in terms of build-up, attention-grabbing details, and humor. Western motifs abound, such as the twirling of guns on the forefinger and thumb interrupted by sudden shots to beat another’s draw, ominous footsteps portending doom, robbing banks and trains, and the macho posturing of cowboy/gang-like figures. Despite the blood and gore and sheer sadism at times, the movie is entertaining.
Casting deserves kudos for Victoria Thomas. Jonathan Majors (The Last Black Man in San Francisco) is eloquent in his portrayal of a man from an honorable family being terrorized as a child. His whole face reveals the years of distress and anger he has experienced. Idris Elba is always extra fine in whatever role he plays, and he brings all his talent to bear in the story of Rufus Buck who, for all his faults, somewhere underneath is a modicum of honor. Colorful women mark high entertainment value in the movie. Regina King as Rufus’ woman Trudy Smith stands out as a powerful female who can be as ruthless as any man, but maintaining loyalty to what she believes in. Likewise, Zazie Beetz as Nat Love’s woman shows her steely commitment to justice more even than to her man. I appreciated the writers giving strong personalities to both these women; neither is simply an appendage to “her” man.
Secondary characters were played so well and illustratively by supporting actors such as LaKeith Stanfield as Cherokee Bill, Danielle Deadwyler as Cuffee, RJ Cyler as Jim Beckwith, and others.
On the whole, the production of The Harder They Fall is exemplary. The script is so intelligent, yet pulls us along in an exciting thriller, teasing us with snippets from the past that while not necessarily right on point, makes us want to learn more. Small drawbacks include the overly long physical fight between two female characters, a script that is overly complicated, and a dialog that is not always clear.
Yes, it’s a drama and a western, but it’s a thriller as well.
Explore our past in an unexpected, delightful—but still thrilling—story with colorful actors playing fascinating figures.
Grade: B+ By Donna R. Copeland