According to an oft-cited statistic, about one out of every four cowboys in the post-Civil War era was Black. Thousands more were farmers or homesteaders. There were Black lawmen, outlaws, and legendary figures. Yet the number of Westerns with Black leads is remarkably small, largely confined to a handful of blaxploitation-era Fred Williamson and Jim Brown vehicles with taglines like “White Man’s Town… Black Man’s Law!” and a few parodies and pastiches like Blazing Saddles and the antebellum Django Unchained.
Jeymes Samuel’s The Harder They Fall, which has a large Black ensemble cast and no white characters of consequence, isn’t here to present a realistic corrective. It’s arguably impossible to, given that the Western is an inherently ahistorical and mythic genre. Instead, what it offers is a kind of irreverent counter-cartoon, in which characters borrow the names of various Black Old West figures and little else. This poses an obvious problem of comparison: The generic quick-draw artists and bandits concocted by Samuel and co-writer Boaz Yakin are a lot less interesting than their namesakes, or the various exaggerated stories that were told about them. The gonzo factor (sadistic violence plus multiple music numbers) is intermittently engaging. The characters, not so much.
For a film that’s well over two hours long, that’s a serious hurdle. Still, there’s enough grotesque imagery in the beginning of the film—cold-blooded killing, spraying blood, freeze frames, an execution in a church—to get one initially invested in the store-brand revenge plot. Nat Love (Jonathan Majors), in real life the author of one of those very fanciful memoirs that helped define the Western myth, is here reimagined as a gunslinger; he leads a gang that specializes in robbing other outlaws and travels around exacting vengeance on former associates of Rufus Buck (Idris Elba), who years ago murdered Love’s parents and carved a cross into the younger man’s forehead.
Obviously, the inevitable finale is a dusty town-square showdown with Buck and his henchpeople. But The Harder They Fall takes the long way there, moving circuitously through subplots and way too many supporting characters, among them the deadly Terrible Trudy (Regina King), the philosophizing Cherokee Bill (LaKeith Stanfield), the hotshot Jim Beckwourth (RJ Cyler), the saloon-owning love interest Stagecoach Mary (Zazie Beetz), and the fearsome marshal and unlikely Love ally Bass Reeves (Delroy Lindo, playing the only character who’s actually modeled on the historical figure he’s named after).
Making his feature directing debut, Samuel appears most comfortable when mimicking the eclectic influences of spaghetti and revisionist Westerns: overlong credits with a theme song and gunshot sound effects; big close-ups of badmen with ugly teeth; zooms; slow motion; Morricone-esque inflections in the score. (One repeated cue, however, sounds distractingly like “Egyptian Reggae.”) Nonetheless, the film is tonally all over the map. There are, as mentioned, some songs, as well as gags that really wouldn’t be out of place in a Mel Brooks parody. At one point, a character warns Love that the bank he’s planning to hold up is in “a white town,” only for the next cut to reveal a town square that is actually painted all white.
This kind of offbeat sensibility is in most cases a welcome thing. But in The Harder They Fall, it’s frequently offset by the plodding pace and leaden attempts at drama; there’s not one, but two different extended monologues about a villain’s childhood, delivered by different villains. Eventually, even some of the quirkier touches, like Samuel’s frequent use of overhead shots, become wearing. And that still leaves the plot, a remix of well-worn violent oater tropes that the script and direction neither subvert or transcend. Apart from some periodically amusing banter, its better parts amount to studious imitation and homage.