Netflix’s The Harder They Fall isn’t the first Black-led western. There have been a few down the years, from Harlem on the Prairie in the ‘30s, to Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier’s excellent iron-twirling team-up in 1972’s Buck and the Preacher, to Posse, Mario Van Peebles’s vengeance-fuelled oater in 1993.
But not many. As Posse’s end credits points out, there were more than 8,000 black cowboys in the Old West whose stories had never been told by Hollywood.
Enter Jeymes Samuel. The musician-filmmaker from west London (and brother of Seal), who goes by the apt stage name The Bullitts, is setting the record straight with The Harder They Fall. The movie, which opens this week’s London Film Festival, gathers a host of iconic real-life Black cowboys together for a bonanza of shootouts, stick-ups, grudges and bloodletting that will equally thrill fans of the genre and just anyone who likes the idea of Idris Elba being a badass on horseback. He shares how this truly original western came to be in six steps.
1. Use what you know
The west London estates of Samuel’s youth may seem like a million miles from 1800s New Mexico, but they absolutely informed the film. ‘I used to watch all the westerns with my mum and dad and then [see them all play out] on Kilburn Lane.’ Samuel remembers. I always used to tell people: If you master your lane, or whatever street you come from, you master the whole world. Idris [Elba] had the the same environment in east London: Growing up in the hood is like the old west.’
2. Do a dry run
‘The first time I had the idea to do a western with Black characters was probably 15 years ago,’ remembers Samuel, who got the ball rolling with 2013’s 50-minute western, They Die by Dawn, starring Michael Kenneth Williams and Giancarlo Esposito. It features a few of the real-life cowboys and villains who recur in ‘The Harder They Fall’, including Stagecoach Mary, Bill Picket, Jim Beckwourth, Sheriff Bass Reeves and Nat Love.
Growing up in the hood is like the old west
3. Set the record straight
‘When the legend becomes fact, print the legend,’ runs the old line from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. But Hollywood mythmaking has rarely left much space for Black stories – a sense of cultural erasure that Samuel is determined to rectify. ‘I love westerns,’ he says, ‘but every time they show Black people, they give a reason for them being there – as if they didn't exist other than being slaves. There were decades with people of colour who didn't know subservience.’ The Harder They Fall tells it how it really was, exploding some lazy storytelling shorthand in the process: ‘Mexicans weren't all wearing white and running fast,’ says Samuel. ‘And Asians weren't all wearing blue and doing laundry like in Deadwood. I wanted to bring balance to the Force.’
4. Make it a cowboy version of The Avengers
The Harder They Fall boasts a starry cast of magnetic British and American stars to follow in the dusty bootprints of Woody Strode, Herb Jeffries, Cleavon Little, Danny Glover, Denzel Washington and others actors of colour to grace the genre. They all play real cowboys and outlaws, albeit many of whom never crossed paths in real life: Gertrude Smith (Regina King), ‘Stagecoach’ Mary Fields (Zazie Beetz), ‘Cherokee’ Bill Pickett (LaKeith Stanfield), Nat Love (Jonathan Majors), Rufus Buck (Idris Elba) and Bass Reeves (Delroy Lindo), the real-life inspiration for the Lone Ranger. ‘I took all real villains and heroes and assembled them all in one place, like the Avengers,’ says Samuel.
5. Go Method
Many of the cast members stayed in character on the Sante Fe set. ‘Was it intimidating? Nah, it was super-fun,’ says Samuel. ‘Jonathan Majors even came to my house and changed my cutlery to the old west style cutlery.’ Among those to stay in character were King, Stanfield and Elba as cold-eyed killer Rufus Buck. ‘That's their technique. The one time Idris broke is when I was having a cowboy-themed street party on set and the music just took him,’ laughs Samuel. ‘In his Rufus Buck voice, he went: ‘‘Yo, boss. You got Norman Connors’ You Are My Starship”?’
6. Drop some killer tunes
Music was an ever-present during filming, with lulls between set-ups often reverberating to the sound of Afrobeat and reggae. The soundtrack follows suit, with a crateload of reggae cuts that reinvent what a western can sound like. ‘I wanted to give this movie something different visually and sonically,’ says Samuel. ‘There’s everything from Barrington Levy to Fela Kuti – and some dub too.’
What we’ve always been shown of the old west is painful to me. I wanted to bring balance to the Force
7. Keep smiling
Filming during the pandemic meant social distancing, goggles, masks, the works. But Samuel kept the mood upbeat on his first feature film set. ‘As stressful as Covid was, I didn't let it come to set. I want to give everyone a great time. For me, it was like learning to drive in a sportscar: If you can't drive, you can’t drive, so it could be a Mini Cooper or a Lamborghini. With all the difficulties, this was like learning to drive in a Lamborghini Diablo. It gave me freedom.’
The Harder They Fall premieres at the London Film Festival on Wed Oct 6. It launches on Netflix soon.