Now it’s us and y’all.
How can you not get behind a project like Jeymes Samuel‘s (aka The Bullitts) feature debut The Harder They Fall after hearing him describe the decision to put real life men and women, who may have never met, together in one story with the words, “I just assembled them like Black Gods.” Growing up loving westerns, that’s exactly who they were to him: historical people of color from the Old West who’ve too often been pushed to the fringes as their white counterparts gained legendary status on the silver screen and in textbooks. We’re talking outlaws like Rufus Buck and Cherokee Bill. Cowboys like Nat Love and lawmen like Bass Reeves. And the first Black female star-route mail carrier in the United States, “Stagecoach” Mary Fields.
Utilizing familiar genre tropes, Samuel separates his characters into two opposing forces during the opening credits. The black hat is given to the Rufus Buck Gang while the white lands on the head of the Nat Love Gang. Their animosity stems from an unapologetic prologue wherein a ten-year-old Love is made to watch as Buck (Idris Elba) murders his parents in cold blood. Now grown with a reputation of his own as a thief of thieves (he prides himself on never having robbed a bank … just those who recently robbed one), Love (Jonathan Majors) is coming to the end of his quest for vengeance. Everyone involved in his family’s demise is dead save Buck, but he’s in prison with a life sentence. Well, he was in prison.
Samuel and co-writer Boaz Yakin set-up a collision course in Redwood City with Buck, “Treacherous” Trudy Smith (Regina King), and Cherokee Bill (LaKeith Stanfield) treating it like their kingdom while Love, Mary (Zazie Beetz), Bill Pickett (Edi Gathegi), Jim Beckworth (RJ Cyler), Cuffee (Danielle Deadwyler), and a vengeful in his own right Reeves (Delroy Lindo) look to storm the castle. There’s a train hijacking and a saloon song; a kidnapping and robbery. One side solidifies itself with an upper hand to dictate terms while the other attempts to wrestle control away until the inevitable shootout arrives with dirty tactics, brutal fisticuffs, and more than a couple bodies left leaking blood in the streets. It’s all cribbed from existing western canon, but through a music video lens.
And that last part is the big draw. Samuel is lending the style he’s honed through years of producing short films for his music to his script in a way that has the whole dancing to the rhythm of the score and soundtrack he’s put together himself. It’s no surprise to learn that he and Shawn Carter (aka Jay-Z, who produces) helped orchestrate the music for Baz Luhrman‘s The Great Gatsby as the feel is very similar, eschewing needle-drops for an immersive atmosphere of augmented emotional reality via song. He’s cutting to the beat, lingering on close-ups and mid-shots, and conducting visual mayhem like notes on a staff. Staccato stepped zooms alternate with longer passages depending on what pacing Samuel needs to complement the scene. Nothing is off-limits.
It won’t be for everyone as a result, but I’d argue that’s the loss of anyone who can’t get on-board. Not only is it flashy and violent and toe-tappingly catchy, but it’s also very funny with its sardonic delivery and satirical bent (when characters mention an upcoming locale is a “white town,” Samuel isn’t going to let the aesthetic opportunity of those words get away from him). Lindo as the straight man and Cyler as the jester (all he wants is to prove he’s a faster draw than Bill) are the overtly humorous roles while King and Beetz’s perpetual pissing contest (through biting dialogue and a physically pounding fight) and Stanfield’s loquaciously calm demeanor add welcome flavor opposite Elba’s brooding menace. And Majors simply steals the show.
He’s been carving out his place on the list of generational talents for a few years now, but it all comes together here with laughs, romance, and tears as Samuel twists his Nat through the wringer of past demons, present yearning, and future pain. The war between his love for Mary and desire for Buck’s blood has come to a head and he knows they won’t all get out alive this time. It’s why he tries to stop the others from following, but that attempt is why they’ll all follow him to Hell and back regardless. The closer Nat gets to the end, however, the more intense his suffering becomes since he can taste victory now. Will he be strong enough to finally kill the Devil?
The questions abound. Will Reeves and Cherokee Bill’s reputations live up to their billing? Will Pickett and Beckworth earn their own? How about Mary and Trudy? They’re both more important than second fiddle to their respective gang leader and there’s no better way to prove it than killing the other. Samuel is having fun with his fan-fiction universe of western icons squaring off in the gray area between good and evil, but he’s also crafting an intricate web of connective tissue pulling surface traits and convention up to reveal a few tricks underneath. None are mind-blowing or necessarily original, but the inherent style in each frame does a lot to compensate. This is a multi-disciplinary artist finding his voice by infectiously marrying sight and sound with undeniable panache.
 THE HARDER THEY FALL (L to R) J.T. HOLT as MARYíS GUARD, REGINA KING as TRUDY SMITH, ZAZIE BEETZ as MARY FIELDS, JUSTIN CLARKE as MARYS GUARD. CR: DAVID LEE/NETFLIX
 THE HARDER THEY FALL (L to R): JONATHAN MAJORS as NAT LOVE and DAMON WAYANS JR as MONROE GRIMES in THE HARDER THEY FALL Cr. DAVID LEE/NETFLIX†© 2021
 THE HARDER THEY FALL (L to R): REGINA KING as TRUDY SMITH, IDRIS ELBA as RUFUS BUCK, LAKEITH STANFIELD as CHEROKEE BILL. CR: DAVID LEE/NETFLIX†© 2021