By Ron Wynn
NASHVILLE, TN — While Black westerns aren’t nearly as new as some would have you think (Herb Jeffries debuted in them back in the ‘30s), there remain those who consider seeing Black characters in Westerns a novelty. But director Jeymes Samuel doesn’t want anyone to deem this film something odd or unusual. He’s calling the film “The Harder They Fall” a film for everyone, but with a predominantly Black cast.
“But if every time you put people of colour in a Western, and say, ‘These people were slaves’, and if every time they put women in a period piece or Western, they always make them super subservient, you have to at some point do something about it, and call attention to it, “Samuel said in a BBC interview. “So it is not a black film, it’s a movie for everyone to enjoy, but it’s a predominantly black cast, telling the story of how they lived.”
Among the more recent Black Westerns there was “Buck and the Preacher” with Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte, and “Posse” from Melvin Van Peebles. The legendary Oscar Micheaux included Westerns in his host of films over a century ago. But “still, the perception remains that the West was colonised by white cowboys facing off against black-hat villains (also white), while ridding the territory of Indians,” Samuel adds, even though many recent histories of the West have spotlighted the active roles of Blacks in every facet of the nation’s western expansion.
“The Harder They Fall” follows two rival gangs – led by Nat Love (Jonathan Majors) and Rufus Buck (Idris Elba). The film opens with a flashback to Love as a child, whose parents are murdered in front of him by Buck at the dinner table. Later in life, hell-bent on revenge, Love hears that Buck’s crew is breaking him out of prison and sets out to track him down. The result is two hours of highly entertaining but extremely violent cinema; both gangs know their way around a fight.
Oscar-winning actress Regina King plays Buck’s partner in crime Treacherous Trudy. She commented that the lack of information on the real-life figure meant she could use some artistic licence.
When I did my Google dive on Gertrude Smith, I tried spelling it lots of different ways, and there isn’t really anything that comes up. So it was a little more liberating, because I didn’t have to be beholden to a certain look or idea of someone,” she said. “But when you think about Jeymes and his vision for the film in its entirety, it was never his idea to make everyone exactly what people may have read or researched… This is more of an extrapolation of people that are real, which I think makes it more stylised, more fun.”
Samuel adds that the industry will only change by calling attention to new approaches. “My whole reason for doing “The Harder They Fall” is so they can make films and write characters in Westerns, and not have to give a reason for them being there if they’re Black, Asian, Latino, Native American,” he concluded. “You can correct the imagery that we’ve had of Native Americans in the old West, circling a wagon with a white lady and her children inside. This is just Hollywood’s mythic viewfinder, we just had to broaden the scope.”