Contrary to some of the chatter online surrounding the release of Netflix’s new movie, The Harder They Fall, multiple hip-hop generations have a strong affinity for the Western. Consider that one of rap’s earliest music videos, Juice Crew’s “The Symphony,” revolves around a Wild West theme. Another, Kool Moe Dee’s “Wild Wild West,” made the connection plain, as did Will Smith’s redux over a decade later on the soundtrack of the film of the same name.
So it’s no surprise that The Harder They Fall — directed by Jeymes Samuel, aka The Bullitts, a musician and music video director for Jay-Z, one of the film’s producers who also appears on the excellent soundtrack — plays more like a long-form music video in the vein of Beyonce’s The Gift than it does genre staples like A Fistfull Of Dollars or The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly. Although it’s an important film in terms of representation of Black cowboys — who were actually just as prevalent as any other ethnicity — its true strength is as much in its soundtrack and visuals as its off-kilter storyline and mixed-bag performances.
Intriguingly enough, The Harder They Fall is far from the first movie to feature Black cowboys. In fact, it’s not the first one on Netflix this year, nor is it Samuel’s first effort. Those distinctions go to Concrete Cowboy and They Die By Dawn, respectively, although the former was a modern movie rather than a Western and the latter saw limited distribution (although, intriguingly, it also featured a strong emphasis on music, with Erykah Badu playing the same role as Zazie Beets, Stagecoach Mary, and featured another alumnus of The Wire in the late Michael K. Williams, playing Nat Love).
And while there has been much emphasis placed on the true-life inspirations of characters like Mary, Nat, Rufus Buck, Cherokee Bill, and Bass Reeves, the actual story of the films plays out more like the plot of Tombstone, with little of these real-life characters’ actual histories represented here. It’s not quite an affront to fictionalize real peoples’ lives to tell a historical fantasy, but it does feel a bit self-indulgent. The story, such as it is, doesn’t really need to use the names and likenesses of real people, and while it may generate interest in them, so too might have just playing their individual stories straight.
Meanwhile, the story itself is quite thin and feels almost like it was pulled together by committee, culling hot topics from Black Twitter without really putting much effort into making the pieces fit. Particularly, Rufus Buck’s motivations seem like a hazy reference to Greenwood in Tulsa, Oklahoma and Idris Elba’s performance is almost sublimated by the overall focus on Jonathan Majors’ Nat Love and his quest for revenge against Buck, and the film’s biggest emotional twist comes in way too late, after a set of diversions that add nothing to its forward momentum other than possibly providing a small bit of revenge fantasy. That’s fine, but if it detracts from the emotional story you want to tell, it’s really unnecessary.
But the story and the performances feel almost secondary to the visuals. They’re beside the point. The point appears to be to set right the erasure of Black people from the grandiose history of the American West. To that end, Samuels goes to lengths to portray his characters as intelligent, savvy, and beautiful, shooting them against picturesque tableaus of deserts, forests, and steppes. While things tend to get a little bland whenever the characters come to a town, a sequence featuring Stagecoach Mary’s saloon could almost fit in on MTV in its heyday.
Likewise, the film’s soundtrack peppers in classic and contemporary soul and reggae cuts to highlight the characters’ travels and the action scenes. Dennis Brown’s “Promised Land” blares over a scene of Rufus Buck’s gang riding into town, Seal’s “Ain’t No Better Love” soundtracks part of the climactic shootout, and Barrington Levy belts “Here I Come” and “Better Than Gold” as Samuels’ camera glides over twirling six-shooters, swirling gunsmoke, and galloping horses. It almost feels like the cursory storyline beats are just breaks between the bits that The Bullitts really wanted to get to: The musical set-pieces that nearly do enough to justify the film’s existence on their own.
I’d go so far as saying that they could have just been the movie without needing a story, like The Gift and other, similar films that have become almost de rigeur for a certain class of prestige artist — like Jay-Z, whose “Moonlight” video Samuels directed, likely leading to the mogul’s funding of this endeavor. I’m not the first to notice this; Okayplayer’s Latesha Harris noted as much in her own review. Films like The Harder They Fall are needed, but what’s needed more is to get beyond the need for surface representation and to actually tell stories worth telling. The movie can also be a guidepost as well, pointing out how to make those stories look and sound as pretty as possible.
The Harder They Fall is streaming now on Netflix.