The Harder They Fall

The Harder They Fall ★★½

“While the events of this story are fictional… These. People. Existed.”

Jeymes Samuel’s Black-centric star-studded Western The Harder They Fall opens on that defiant, creatively flexible note. Every major character in Samuel’s bloated style-over-story directorial debut borrows their name from a historic African-American cowboy or outlaw. By putting them in a bloody, slick spaghetti Western, Samuel can take the liberty to remake their legends in his image, for a diverse contemporary epic.

It’s easy to wholly praise The Harder They Fall on the grounds of representation, but the actual merits of that benchmark aren’t obvious, given the historical competition. Black Westerns began with Richard C. Kahn’s 1930s films, then took off during the 1970s alongside Blaxploitation, with films like Buck and the Preacher and Thomasine & Bushrod. In the 1990s, they found new avenues, like Rosewood. The Harder They Fall takes its initial cue from Mario Van Peebles’ Posse, a 1993 precursor Black ensemble Western starring Blair Underwood, Tiny Lester, and Pam Grier. Like Posse, The Harder They Fall centers on an outlaw son seeking revenge for his slain preacher father.

Samuel’s version of the story revolves around Nat Love (Jonathan Majors), a bandit leader with a prominent cross carved in his forehead by the man who murdered his father. Love is out for a solo revenge, but he can’t fully shake his loyal gang, including tranquil Bill Pickett (Edi Gathegi), brazen Stagecoach Mary (Zazie Beetz), quick-draw expert Jim Beckworth (RJ Cyler), and unflinching Cuffee (Danielle Deadwyler), along with famed lawman Bass Reeves (Delroy Lindo). The killer, the notorious Rufus Buck (Idris Elba), has his own hardened crew to match: ruthless Trudy Smith (Regina King) and sly Cherokee Bill (LaKeith Stanfield) back his efforts to control a town, supposedly to protect the Black residents he keeps under his thumb.

Apart from the star-studded ensemble, with a few of the actors totally miscast, this film is only groundbreaking in the sense that it was designed for streaming. Its aesthetics are more obtrusively loud than stylish or gaudy. Its story is too slight to back up the overlong runtime. The natural Western landscape, rendered artificially, lacks vastness. Samuel’s The Harder They Fall doesn’t rise to the epic scale of its spaghetti and Blaxploitation influences: The genre has never felt so small and streaming-friendly as it does in this tawdry misadventure. [full review via Polygon]