Giving the Western some swagger in 'The Harder They Fall'

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This image released by Netflix shows Regina King, left, and Lakeith Stanfield in a scene from "The Harder They Fall." (David Lee via AP)

NEW YORK – If you had any doubt that Jeymes Samuel, the director of “The Harder They Fall” and the British musician known as the Bullits, loves Westerns, then you haven't heard him sing Dean Martin's “My Rifle, My Pony and Me” from John Ford's “Rio Bravo.”

“When Dean Martin pops up in a movie, you know: Oh, there’s going to be a song,” Samuel says with a giant grin. “It doesn't matter if the movie is ‘Silence of the Lambs,’ he will find a way.”

Samuel tilts his head upward and lightly croons: “Coming home, sweetheart darling/ Just my rifle, my pony and me.”

“The Harder They Fall,” which is currently playing in theaters and debuts Wednesday on Netflix, is filled to its Stetson brim with affection for Westerns. It has all the gunfights, train robberies, saloons, and showdowns you would expect. But Samuel's film also dusts off many of the traditional limitations of an old genre, reinventing it for today. “The Harder They Fall” is a spirited and kinetic Black Western that swaggers to its own hip-hop beat.

“Many people live under the assumption they don’t like Westerns," explains Samuel in a recent interview over Zoom from Los Angles. "I'm always telling people: Yes, you do! You just don’t like the way they’re presented. You don’t like the narrow depiction of everyone else outside of the white male. But if it was presented in a different way, I’m sure you would watch that.”

Samuel, who did the soundtrack himself (with many bold-name guests, including the film's co-producer Jay-Z), makes his feature film directing debut. It's the culmination of a long-held Western dream for an artist — whose recording moniker nods to the 1968 Steve McQueen film “Bullitt” — who has long blended movies with music.

“I’ve always said I see music and I hear film," says Samuel.

But as warmly as Samuel feels about the Western, some elements of the genre have always gnawed at him. For much of the Western's history, Black people seldom made it on screen, and when they did, they were usually subservient background characters. That isn't just inequitable, it's inaccurate.

Historians estimate that as many as one in four cowboys were Black. (The word “cowboy” originated as a racist term for a Black ranch worker. A white one was a “cowhand.”) Samuel notes there were decades of the Old West after slavery ended in 1865. The iconic character of the Lone Ranger, for instance, was based on Bass Reeves, the first Black deputy U.S. marshal west of the Mississippi River. For decades, in a genre that more than another served as a portrait of America, Hollywood whitewashed the frontier.

Samuel opens “The Harder They Fall” with a title card noting it's a fictional story but based on real historical figures: “These. People. Existed." For Samuel, he didn't want to waste any time getting straight to the point.

“When I’m telling the story of ‘The Harder They Fall,’ I’ve had decades of frustration,” he says. “We’re not wasting any more time. No more 'Hi ho, Silver!” The horse got more shine in the Western than Black people!”

“The Harder They Fall” stars Jonathan Majors as Nat Love and Idris Elba as Rufus Buck — two rival gunslingers brought together in a revenge saga. There's also LaKeith Stanfield as Cherokee Bill, Zazie Beets as Stagecoach Mary and Regina King as “Treacherous” Trudy Smith. It's a formidable cast for a first feature, though Samuel, the brother of the musician Seal, has shot shorts, including an earlier Western called “They Die By Dawn.”

When Tendo Nagenda, vice president of original film at Netflix, first read the script, only Elba was attached, but all of the song references were overlaid throughout. Nagenda met Samuel shortly after while visiting another film set in London.

“It’s hard to forget the first time you meet him. I felt like I had known him my whole life,” says Nagenda of the charismatic Samuel. “The aperture by which you got to experience Westerns was pretty narrow. So what his script did was expand the aperture. It felt like a familiar canvas from a different perspective. It’s not like an anti-movie in any way. It’s a celebratory, very inclusive movie that feels current because of how it’s told.”

Nagenda sees wider possibilities for “The Harder They Fall,” which the streamer showed its faith in by giving it a $90 million budget. Netflix has in recent years focused particularly on growing its own stable of franchises, and Samuel's crowded landscape of larger-than-life outlaws could be tapped for expansion.

“Our standard was: When it’s said and done, you’d be excited to watch a movie just about any one character, to follow them into their own story — either prequel, sequel or same time,” says Nagenda. “You like them enough to be compelled that you want to know more about them.”

One thing that distinguishes “The Harder They Fall" is that it's in many ways not about race. White characters appear only briefly, and largely for comic relief. Samuel's Western world is proudly and almost entirely Black — the characters simply exist — that makes it more akin to a Blaxploitation Western like 1972's “The Legend of Black Charley," with Fred Williamson.

There's a rich if lesser known tradition of Black Westerns, like “Buck and the Preacher” with Sidney Poitier. But much of the genre's iconography is white and male. Samuel is also proud of having women central and powerful figures in his film.

“We love ‘Unforgiven,’ with Clint Eastwood, Morgan Freeman, Gene Hackman, Richard Harris, Saul Rubinek. That’s a wicked movie," says Samuel. “That’s an amazing, amazing movie. But every single woman in it is a whore.”

Samuel is also fond of Sergio Leone's “For a Few Dollars More” and Sergio Corbucci's “The Great Silence.” He loves John Ford's “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” but that film also reflects to him what's lacking in Westerns. Though Ford two years earlier made a movie starring the imposing African American actor Woody Strode (1960's “Sergeant Rutledge”), Strode appears fleetingly in “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance"; in one scene, his character is turned away from a bar.

“He couldn’t even get a drink at the bar. Woody Strode was the most chiseled, godly Black man, and he couldn’t even get a drink where John Wayne was,” says Samuel. “Those are the things that turn my nose up about those movies.”

Samuels remembers finding another history while flipping through library books about the Old West as a 13-year-old, amazed to learn how different the time was than how he had seen it depicted.

“This film for me," he says, "is almost like a calling.”


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This story has been updated to correct the wording of title card and the spelling of “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.”