The opening night film of London Film Festival 2021, The Harder They Fall was an explosive, sensational feature to kick off the festival, and it did not disappoint. A Western with an all-Black lead cast, it succeeded in both telling the stories of real cowboys who lived in the American West, and of crafting an affecting romance between two leads.
At the premiere, British Film Institute figures including its director and LFF festival programmers spoke of how the film is a display of Black excellence, and this certainly is true. Not only is it made up of an impressive cast, it radiates energy and is thrilling to have seen on the big screen.
The Harder They Fall
Director: Jeymes Samuel
Release date: October 6, 2021 (LFF)
At the star-studded opening event, director Jeymes Samuel spoke about representation in his film and explained that the traditional Westen could so often take such a narrow view of narratives. Often, Westerns sported white male leads and didn’t leave much room for other stories. In The Harder They Fall, we have the story of two gangs of warring cowboys, all African-American, and the use of strong male and female leads was a foundational element of the film.
Idris Elba plays notorious criminal Rufus Buck, and his gang comprises Treacherous Trudy (Regina King) and her followers. King, whose recent work includes appearing in HBO’s Watchmen and her directorial debut, One Night in Miami (which premiered at LFF 2020), has shown herself to be a powerful voice in Black storytelling and carries it forward here. In a perfectly-executed scene, she and her posse hijack a steam train and free Buck while he’s being transported between two prisons (not even such tight security is foolproof.) Meanwhile, they have to contend with rival gang the Nat Love crew, led by Love (Jonathan Majors), who is sworn on a vengeance crusade for his late parents. The way the two factions come together is electric and their quick-fire showdowns are both humorous and virtuosic.
While time is too short to praise the cast for all their talents, the quality of the lineup really was special. Nat Love’s partner, Stagecoach Mary (Zazie Beetz) was so much more than just a sidekick: she was a real woman with a history and her own notorious reputation. Likewise, the threatening LaKeith Stanfield contrasted a gentler but powerful Edi Gathegi as Bill Pickett, and CJ Ryler’s charismatic and playful Jim Beckworth good-naturedly teased younger members of the group while also showing himself as protective as a brother.
There was a strong emotional impact from the narrative which I know a lot of the viewers felt very keenly. This was no doubt due to the magnificent score, the idea being to showcase different genres. A celebration of reggaeton, soul, and the classic, expansive Western soundscapes, it was made even better by the BFI Royal Festival Hall sound system, which in a venue of that size was second to none. Another reason to encourage viewers to watch this on the biggest screen they can!
The film is a vibrant celebration of the Western genre, with bright sets and a playful tone, sometimes using tropes of the genre, sometimes skewering them. While the town of Redwood is predominantly a Black town, a neighbouring settlement is proclaimed a white settlement with a humourous title-card, and indicated with white dust covering the ground and buildings painted white, so there is no room for misinterpretation. There is a segment in which the youngest member of the Nat Love gang has to dress as a woman in order to help with a heist, and his awkwardness at having to affect a female cadence in his voice and sitting side-saddle.
I won’t spoil the plot and its near-operatic capacity for violence, spectacle and suspense, but suffice to say it is uniquely thrilling. There can be a tendency to compare characters in Westerns to the ones we’re used to seeing in the form of John Wayne and Clint Eastwood, but I think we’ve been seeing a resurgence of the genre with different leads in recent years. From the Coen brothers’ anthology The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, to the poignantly observed The Drover’s Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson which premiered at SXSW earlier this year, there has been a whole slate of films tackling different viewpoints in Westerns.
The Harder They Fall is a marker of this cultural shift and a really accomplished film. Its premiere here in London coincides nicely with Black History Month throughout October, and I’ll be looking out for more films from Jeymes Samuel after this and hope that its November release on Netflix will give it the distribution it deserves.