The history of the Hollywood western has been a massively white affair, hardly a revelation to anyone who has spent more than a few years watching movies. Director Jeymes Samuel may have had that in mind while directing The Harder They Fall an almost entirely Black helping of genre tropes set in the Old West -- or Samuel's version of it.
Samuel, who's British, has assembled a first-rate cast that includes Jonathan Majors, Idris Elba, Regina King, Zazie Beetz, Delroy Lindo, and LaKeith Stanfield.
A revenge saga at heart, the movie wastes no time putting its brutal cards on the table. When he was only eight, Love watched Buck murder his mother and father. Buck then carved a small cross on Love's forehead.
The movie takes place with the now-grown Love leading a gang of thieves who rob from other thieves. Nat also wants to avenge the death of his parents. He's out for blood.
Samuel embellishes the movie's genre ploys with rap music, jazz, and, most unusually, a modern dance interlude set in a saloon. Jay-Z and Kid Cudi's My Guns Go Bang turns up, not a tune you'd expect to find in a western -- and some of the more profane language obliterates the line between historical and contemporary talk.
The melding of approaches is part of the point: The Harder They Fall is no throwback; it's intentionally styled to be of the moment; i.e., it’s fluent in the language of 21st Century cinema.
So, no, John Wayne couldn't ride into this movie and find a comfort zone.
Although Majors's Love is the main character, the movie has an ensemble feel and Samuel makes sure not to shortchange the female cast members. King portrays Trudy, a tough-talking, no-nonsense assistant to the soft-spoken but no less menacing Buck.
Beetz appears as Stagecoach Mary, an independent woman who provides Nat with a love interest -- but never plays second fiddle to him.
Not only is the music anachronistic but so are some of the movie's gender variations. Danielle Deadwyler plays Cuffy, an outlaw of ambiguous gender identity.
The story advances toward the all-Black town of Redwood City where Buck, newly sprung from prison by Trudy and cohorts, plans to establish his empire. The revenge-hungry Love has other plans.
Samuel's over-reliance on looming close-ups can be annoying and the plot tends to trip over itself here and there. But the movie has a quality of the unexpected that fends off dullness and the actors all work at peak form, many operating in both comic and serious veins.
The movie makes one brilliant satirical joke when Nat and his crew head to an all-white town to rob the local bank. The town has been drained of color by a production team with a cutting sense of humor.
I don't know the history of the movie's characters who are based on real people, but it's clear that Samuel, who co-wrote the screenplay with Boaz Yakin, has taken great liberties in order to produce a no-holds-barred western that blazes across the screen, sometimes falling off its horse, but always creating a strong vibe -- presuming there was such thing as a "vibe" in the Old West.