“The Harder They Fall” Review: Dusting a Dying Cowboy Kind

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There’s a cruel irony against Hollywood’s efforts to diversify: For nearly a century, the industry has described the world as a place dominated by white, straight, able-bodied males. Films generally relegated women and people of color to supporting and enslaving roles, while excluding (or defaming) queer and disabled characters. As a result, entire generations have been raised on unbalanced and inaccurate representations of our past – that Jesus was white, for example – to the extent that they do not necessarily believe it when black actors appear in situations where they performed. an important (off-screen) role. Like the American West.

Well, as Jeymes Samuel’s elegant outlaw revenge saga, “The Harder They Fall,” “The Harder They Fall” points out right away, “These. People. Existed. – white letters pierced through a black screen like if someone had blown it up with shotgun pellets.The film, which kicked off the BFI London Film Festival, is not a fantasy western full of made-up characters (not that it there’s nothing wrong with that, as gonzos like South Korea’s ‘The Good the Bad the Weird’ have demonstrated) but an assembly of real-life black cowboy stars, including Nat Love (Jonathan Majors ), Stagecoach Mary (Zazie Beets) and Cherokee Bill (LaKeith Stanfield).

Perhaps halfway through a movie in which the Civil War is over, slavery is over and all the main roles are played by black actors, Nat and his gang travel to a town of terrified, rich whites. . The city has literally been whitewashed: every plank, sign, and porch has been painted white, so visibly the public should realize how artificial it all looks – something that maybe isn’t theirs. never have occurred to mind while watching a western in which no black actors appear.

After robbing the bank, Nat and his company return to Redwood City, a border town full of color, which is no accident either. (The Cerro Pelon Movie Ranch in New Mexico represents most of the places.) Everyone here is black, and the notion of “good guys” and “bad guys” isn’t that clear, as they’re basically wanted men. And women. Everyone fears bandit Rufus Buck (Idris Elba), also a real person, though liberally fictionalized here. But three of the film’s most compelling characters wear dresses, at least every now and then: Mary, her right-hand man Cuffee (Danielle Deadwyler), and Trudy Smith (Regina King), who rides Rufus. .

In the opening scene, Rufus knocks on the door of a border hut, shoots the family, and carves a cross on young Nat’s forehead. “Some time later” in Texas, Nat became the star of “Lovecraft Country” Majors, who has one of those faces that holds the camera whether seen from afar on horseback or watching. straight into the lens in a Sergio Leone style. super close-up.

Nat has spent most of his life hunting down and revenge on the men who raided his home all those years ago. The only one left is Rufus Buck himself, safe behind bars, but not for long. In the film’s most efficient setting, Rufus’ group stops a train and pulls it out of a heavy iron vault. Then they shoot all the white soldiers hired to transport him, but not without cause.

A singer with an interest and aptitude for directing, Samuel is no stranger to the genre, having directed the striking 2013 western “They Die by Dawn”, an impressive mid-length showcase starring the late Michael Kenneth Williams as Nat Love and Erykah. Badu in the role of the stagecoach Mary. Although very accomplished, this project was like a practice session for “The Harder They Fall”, which focuses on the score to be settled between Nat and Rufus. It’s a personal matter, and Rufus had his reasons, we learn. As one character puts it, “I saw the Devil, and Rufus Buck is not him. The devil is white.

Although the film doesn’t feel overtly political, through its sheer power of representation, it challenges the very restrictive codes of a genre – and finds new life in – a genre that has carbon-copied itself into oblivion via mid-1950s TV series like “Gunsmoke” and “Raw Skin.” Samuel makes nothing here by shifting attention to non-white anti-heroes. Oscar Micheaux made black westerns a century ago, and the big screen saw notable examples via Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte in Mario Van Peebles’ “Buck and the Preacher” and “Posse.” Yet the perception remains that the West was colonized by white cowboys facing off against baddies in black hat (also white), while ridding the territory of the Indians.

As fun as the majors, Elba, Beetz and King are to watch in roles that chew up a lot of scenery (and oh what scenery!), It’s Stanfield who steals the show here as half Indian, half black Cherokee Bill. So memorably laconic elsewhere, the actor stretches out to create a charismatic character (Deadwyler’s Cuffe comes just after), chewing on his cheroot and drawlings that would be at home in “Django Unchained” or “The Hateful Eight”.

Samuel’s two biggest influences seem to be Leone and Tarantino, which allows for a very edgy presentation, sometimes at the expense of a clean, straightforward story (it’s unnecessarily complicated and the dialogue is half too smart). He cannot compete with either master in their ability to release tension until the neck hair prickles in anticipation. Rather, Samuel thinks like a musician, using gunshots and camera cuts to set the tone. This tactic elevates Nat Love’s murder of an outlaw in the Priest’s Trail, as each bullet freezes the frame to deliver another word from the film’s title. He later builds on Barrington Levy’s reggae classic “Here I Come”, remixed with long, silent passages between drum beats, to make Rufus’ reunion with his gang iconic.

Like “Young Guns” or “Tombstone” – the few recent westerns (ish) to have connected with the public – “The Harder They Fall” is committed to putting its mark on larger-than-life legends. The fact that their names aren’t as well-known as Billy the Kid or Wyatt Earp makes the movie all the more compelling, especially in the dot-dot-dot coda that follows the final shootout, leaving room for other exploits or so that other directors come and develop the same characters.


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