There is segregation in this raucous cowboy flick, but not the kind you expect. The black towns are entirely black, and the white settlements are white. But unlike just about every other western under the baking frontier sun, The Harder They Fall has only a passing interest in the latter. It’s into the rarely-seen lives of the old west’s Black heroes and villains that this violent, extrovert and radically fresh-feeling addition to the genre gallops.
Writer-director Jeymes Samuel keeps his audience in on the joke (that white town is rendered in blinding alabaster shades), but doesn’t linger there long. This is an almost entirely Black wild west, given a pop-culture makeover with quickfire modern dialogue – including some disses Tarantino would be proud of – Baz Luhrmann-esque costumes and a crate load of reggae and hip hop cuts. It’s a western with a soundsystem hitched to the back: The monster reverb on Barrington Levy’s heavily used ‘Here I Come’ alone may blow your cinema (or TV) speakers, never mind producer Jay Z’s collaboration with Kid Cudi.
Crucially, its fictionalised and ruthless world is populated with real historical characters. The opening chyrons pointedly note that: ‘These. People. Existed’. And Samuel reassembles them to empower not just Black cowboys but female ones too, like Stagecoach Mary (Deadpool’s Zazie Beetz) and Regina King’s tough-as-nails Trudy Smith. Here the women fight as hard or harder than the men, and kill with the same ease.
And the killings are violent, raw, even gratuitous at times, but never less than stylish. Cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr’s camera finds fresh new angles to capture cowboys doing things we’ve seen them do a million times before. One face-off has two gunmen’s shadows stretching down the dusty drag of a desert town, and even the shadows look mean as hell.
Many of those deaths come courtesy of the six-shooter of cold-eyed bad guy Rufus Buck (Idris Elba, channelling Frank in Once Upon a Time in the West), an outlaw who somehow turns out to be even more vicious in real life. A brutal Buck deed from long ago gives the movie its spaghetti western set-up, setting the scarred Nat Love (Lovecraft County’s Jonathan Majors) on a mission of revenge that soon takes in Stagecoach Mary, straight-arrow Bill Pickett (Edi Gathegi), fast-mouthed gunslinger Jim Beckwourth (RJ Cyler) and Mary’s muscle, Cuffee (Danielle Deadwyler).
Legendary lawman Bass Reeves (Delroy Lindo) plays the Nick Fury role to this group of Avengers, as they search out Buck, Smith and their gang, including urbane enforcer Cherokee Bill (LaKeith Stanfield).
It’s a hugely watchable ensemble, but the icily charismatic Elba is the main drawcard – and Samuel knows it, giving not one but several cool-as-hell reveals (this is one of those westerns that knows the power of a slow hat tip).
If The Harder They Fall occasionally feels like a collection of music-video riffs, each with its own momentum and rhythm, and it drags a touch in the middle, that stylised energy and ridiculously charismatic cast makes it a ride. You’re pretty sure you know where it’s going – and bar a late-in-the-day twist, it dutifully goes there – but it’s well worth saddling up for.
The Harder They Fall premiered at the BFI London Film Festival. In select UK cinemas Oct 22 and on Netflix worldwide Nov 3.