The next Netflix western “The more they fall”Recounts a vendetta between the Nat Love Gang and the Rufus Buck Gang. As in many westerns, dueling outlaws hold deep grudges. They live outside of polite society. They shoot first and sometimes ask questions.
They are also all black, a fact that is not mentioned throughout the film. “The Harder They Fall”, directed by Jeymes samuel and featuring an impressive lineup of stars, does not use race as a medium for social commentary, as many black westerns have. His radical bet is to remember that there were black outlaws and lawyers, even if they were often overlooked by the genre. The film asserts its point of view through this cheeky pragmatism.
“This is a western about black people doing their own thing in their own space,” Samuel, from London, said on a video call from Los Angeles. “It’s a western for us. We were ignored by the history of the Old West and the cinematic presentation of what the Old West was. “
Samuel is correct in that what we think of as classic traditional westerns tend to be white affairs. On the fringes, however, the noir western is almost as old as the genre itself. Racing movies, or low budget movies made for black audiences during the Jim Crow era, frequently featured Western stories. Many of them have played Herb Jeffries, who often played a vocal cowboy in the mold of Gene Autry. Some of the films were quite current: In “Two Gun Man from Harlem”(1938), a black man is framed by a white woman for the murder of her husband.
“These films are similar to the Roy Rogers and Gene Autry films, which were very popular,” said Rick Worland, film professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. “They were basically black westerns” – kind of like “The Harder They Fall”.
Meanwhile, the Hollywood western rarely made room for black characters. One exception was Woody stepped forward.
Former football star – he played alongside Jackie Robinson at the University of California Los Angeles – Strode has become a favorite of Western King John Ford, who was won over by both physique and striking features by Strode. The parties could be humiliating; In Ford’s “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” (1962), Jimmy Stewart’s Yankee Senator hands Pompey de Strode a wad of “pok chop money”. But Ford also put Strode front and center in “Sergeant Rutledge” (1960), the story of a black trooper and former slave accused of raping and murdering a white woman as well as his father.
When Samuel sees a movie like “Sergeant Rutledge,” he notes that the presence of the black character has to be explained in some way. “Whenever they show a black in a western somewhere along the line, they will give a reason why that particular black is in this town,” he said. “It’s like ‘Oh, he belonged to Laura Ingalls’ family’,” a reference to the author of “The Little House on the Prairie”. He added, “Come on man, can’t we just exist in town?” Can’t we just exist?
By the early 1970s and with the advent of low-cost Blaxploitation films, the rules and expectations had changed. “The goal of Blaxploitation was to produce this stuff very quickly,” said Eric Pierson, professor of communications studies at the University of San Diego. “So you look for inspiration wherever you can. This often meant genre films, whether horror films (“Blacula”, 1972) or westerns.
Some of them were pretty good. In “Buck and the preacher”(1972), Sidney Poitier’s wagon boss and Harry Belafonte’s crook come to the aid of freed slaves attacked by vicious labor agents. As Worland pointed out, the white agents in “Buck and the Preacher” serve the same function as Native Americans in classic westerns. “The savages are basically white racists,” Worland said. “They rape women and kill children. They do everything that Indians are traditionally described as doing.
This historical revision and this retribution continued in the 90s with “Possessed” (1993). Mario Van Peebles, son of Blaxploitation pioneer Melvin Van Peebles, directed and starred in this western about five Buffalo Soldiers of the Spanish American War who leave Cuba and return to the United States, where they end up defending a prairie town blacks of the Ku Klux Klan. The film begins with a long introduction recited on camera by none other than Woody Strode, who explains that black people in the West did indeed help colonize the land and create the West.
“The Harder They Fall” begins with its own version of Strode’s introduction, processed in a few quick strokes with on-screen text: “While the events of this story are fictional… These. People. Has existed.
Indeed, they did. Nat Love (Jonathan Majors) was a real outlaw. Much like Rufus Buck (Idris Elba). The same goes for Stagecoach Mary (Zazie Beetz), Gertrude “Treacherous Trudy” Smith (Regina King), Cherokee Bill (LaKeith Stanfield), Jim Beckwourth (RJ Cyler) and other characters in the film.
As a western-mad teenager in London, Samuel was delighted to read about these historical figures at the local library.
“All these people I had never heard of before,” Samuel said. And that he has never seen on screen. “I knew all the words of ‘Windy City’ by Doris Day in ‘Calamity Jane’, but I had never heard of Stagecoach Mary. So, discovering these people was a real treat.
“The Harder They Fall” doesn’t bother whites much – with one exception. Needing money, Nat brings gang member Cuffee (Danielle Deadwyler) with him to rob a bank. They have been warned that their target is in a white city, and still is. The buildings are white. The roads are white. The horses are white. And, of course, the people are white. When Nat and Cuffee enter the bank, they are faced with a shocked silence, much like cowboy bar Eddie Murphy requisitions in “48 Hrs.” becomes mute.
“This particular scene was fun for me because I wanted to play on the premise of what we consider to be white,” Samuel said. “I really step away from color in the movie, so you can be any race and just watch these characters and support the ones you support and just enjoy the universal story. But when I launch into color, I make it my duty to reverse it and make us rethink it. “
For the most part, the film’s statement is its absence. With a roster of outlaws and black lawyers, “The Harder They Fall” is a black western.
And even …
“It’s a movie about a bunch of people and by default those people are black,” Samuel said. “But their skin color has nothing to do with the story. What were we waiting for, right?”