“You throw Black people in a western and it’s like sci-fi”: Director Jeymes Samuel on The Harder They Fall

The exuberant blood-spattered western The Harder They Fall offers a corrective to the whitewashed clichés of the genre’s past, with a starry cast including Idris Elba, Regina King and LaKeith Stanfield, and a soundtrack co-written by Jay-Z and director Jeymes Samuel

Regina King as Trudy Smith and LaKeith Stanfield as Cherokee Bill in The Harder They Fall (2021)

The Harder They Fall is released in UK cinemas on 22 October and on Netflix on 3 November.

Sprawling, cheerfully anachronistic, and shot through with whizzing bullets, The Harder They Fall is a starry ensemble western featuring a principal cast who are almost exclusively Black.

The outlaw hero is Nat Love (Jonathan Majors) and his gang, including ne’er-do-wells like Stagecoach Mary (Zazie Beetz). They seek revenge against a rival gang run by the merciless Rufus Buck (Idris Elba), along with gentleman thief Cherokee Bill (the ever laconic LaKeith Stanfield) and the vicious Trudy Smith (Regina King). And in between the two gangs is a renowned sheriff, Marshal Bass Reeves (Delroy Lindo).

With a generous Netflix-backed budget of $90 million, The Harder They Fall bounces along to a locomotive-beat soundtrack of hip-hop, reggae and gospel, co-written by the film’s director Jeymes Samuel and Jay-Z.

When you talk to Samuel, a multi-hyphenate artist, you can feel the source of the exuberance that runs through his debut feature. Far from his hometown in London, Samuel spoke to me via Zoom from Los Angeles, talking passionately about the history of the western, the progression of the genre’s legendary soundtracks, and the impetus to offer a corrective to the whitewashed past of the American West.

Jeymes Samuel with Idris Elba behind the scenes of The Harder They Fall

Christina Newland: You wrote and directed the 50-minute western They Die by Dawn in 2013, but this is your debut proper as writer-director. What draws you to the genre and how did you come up with the story for The Harder They Fall?

Jeymes Samuel: Westerns were always my favourite genre growing up. I love all of the John Fords and John Hustons, The Searchers [1956]. I love all the forms they take and the growth of them. But there were always glaring inconsistencies with the way they portrayed people of colour and women. If you’re a woman or a person of colour in the Old West in Hollywood, you’re in a subservient position. Growing up, I wanted to search more about the characters in this time and place, so I ended up researching and uncovered all these amazing real-life characters that existed that we never got to learn about. The Rufus Buck Gang; Nat Love; Jim Beckwourth; Marshal Bass Reeves, who was the inspiration for the Lone Ranger; Stagecoach Mary… so when I could get all these amazing men and women together in a fictional story, it was like the Avengers! Hopefully now people will want to learn more about them.

Knowing that all of these characters in the film were historical figures, what made you decide to go down a fictional route rather than, say, a biopic or something more traditional?

In real life, none of these people knew each other. But only one of their stories wouldn’t have necessarily had all the tropes I would want to show for Black people in the western. I want the bank robbery, the train robbery and the jail break. And the real Rufus Buck was executed at 18 years of age. He wasn’t Idris Elba’s age. So I’m going to take liberties to tell the story that’s in my head.

I was curious to know about your decision to modernise the language of the film, as well as to make the music choices very intentionally anachronistic and of our own era.

It’s interesting you say that because with westerns the music you’re hearing is almost never the music you’d have heard in the Old West. Like, in Rio Bravo [1958], with Dean Martin. [Sings a pitch-perfect rendition of ‘My Rifle, My Pony and Me’.] What we imagine as ‘western’ music was just current to that day. That’s just a Dean Martin song! I’ve always categorised the genre, and the style of the western, by the music. It’s like it expands as they go further along. For The Magnificent Seven [1960], there’s this big orchestral, Elmer Bernstein thing. Then you go to Italy, where Sergio Leone and Ennio Morricone teamed up, and Morricone was using an electric guitar, which was still pretty new then. They used their voices because they didn’t have the bread for an orchestra. But when you look at the music, you can also see that the aesthetics shifted along with it. So with The Harder They Fall, it was like, what am I going to do musically to separate this movie? You throw Black people in a western and it’s like sci-fi. So growing up in London, we listened to a lot of dancehall and reggae and dub. As a kid I listened to Barrington Levy’s Here I Come, and I could hear galloping horses. It’s the perfect juxtaposition. So I went toward this kind of reggae/dub/afrobeat sonic landscape to place the movie on.

Regina King, Idris Elba and LaKeith Stanfield on a train with two guards in The Harder They Fall (2021)
Regina King as Trudy Smith, Idris Elba as Rufus Buck and LaKeith Stanfield as Cherokee Bill in The Harder They Fall (2021)

This movie feels like it’s very clearly a corrective to a lot of the western genre, which in the main has been white, in spite of the fact that the actual history of the American West says otherwise.

Hollywood has done us a disservice by not mining those truths, and not presenting those storylines. You know, if you show just half of the truth, then for me the whole basis is a lie. We grew up thinking Native Americans were bad people. If you just go on westerns, you’d think Native Americans just circled wagons full of old white women. As much as I love westerns – and I can’t emphasise how much I love them, maybe with the music and getting lost in that world. But often the presentation of the characters is very narrow. It allowed no room for interpretation. I’m glad I’m alive in this era so we have access to so much information, we can present something new. Seeing all these people of colour and women who are subservient… that’s just not the reality. So it was important to me to bring balance in that way.

I loved the use of music in the fight scene between Regina King and Zazie Beetz’s characters.

That was Fela Kuti’s song ‘Let’s Start’. It actually features Ginger Baker from Cream on the drums. To me, it’s cowboy. It’s western. It’s everything we love about the Old West but that we’ve never seen before. For me, that’s the main drive for telling any kind of story. I want to tell stories in a way that we’ve never seen before.

There are a few visual flourishes in The Harder They Fall that I wanted to ask you about. There’s one shot that moves from behind Idris Elba, looking out of a window, and then swoops all the way down the street to Jonathan Majors on his horse.

The mansion [that Idris Elba is in] was built from scratch. Everything was on location, so most of the sets were built from the floor to the ceiling. When I walked in there, I said, “I want a camera right at the back of the mansion, going through the entire town.” There’s no visual effects at all, it’s all practical. We had the camera on a cable, and it went over Idris’s shoulder. We had the glass from the window removed. People do these clever visual things digitally, but it’s nothing like doing them for real. But that’s why I love Netflix and working with them on this movie, because they really gave me the freedom to do all of the things that were in my head.

And of course you have a big budget on this movie, for a debut film. What was it like on set, with all those moving parts on a big production?

So imagine – my debut. I did the score, I composed all the music for the movie and produced every single song on the soundtrack. Then we’re shooting, and as well as having taken on all that responsibility and all those job titles, we were shooting in the middle of Covid. The strange thing is that because it was my debut film – it was like learning to drive. If you don’t know how, it doesn’t matter whether you learn in a Mini Cooper or a Bugatti. But I’m always playing music and jamming. The film that we make is for the public, but the making of the film is for us. So I wanted us to have the best time.

Zazie Beetz as Stagecoach Mary and Jonathan Majors at Nat Love in The Harder They Fall (2021)

Another aesthetic choice is during the train robbery, when LaKeith Stanfield is on one side of the door and the Union soldier is on the other, and it’s in split screen. And then the split screen moves as the door opens. How did you conceive of that scene?

I storyboarded that entire sequence, but really, with it being my first film, it was a bit of a risk shooting it like I did because you have to frame them in half the screen. The conventional wisdom would be to shoot normally and split-screen it after the fact. But I was so adamant in doing it and so in love with split screen that I didn’t even want to have the choice. So I storyboarded it heavily and shot it in split screen. It was hard. But it bodes well as an introduction to LaKeith’s character of Cherokee Bill. I wanted you to be in love with these characters, but also scared of them.

It’s also interesting in that scene, because you chose for these soldiers on the train to be Union Army, not Confederates. We know that after the Civil War, they were no angels either.

Exactly what you said: they weren’t angels. And all manner of people were parading around, saying they were on the side of the law when they weren’t. That’s what I love about The Harder They Fall – no one’s actually a goodie in it, everyone is extremely naughty in this environment. Therefore you have to choose which naughty side you’re going to be on, and how naughty you’re going to be. After the Civil War, you had all these rogues and splinter groups in uniform doing all manner of horrific shit. This particular bunch of soldiers who are bad… they come across a crew who’s badder.

Led by Regina King.

Yes, led by a woman. I just haven’t seen that in a western. And just because we have women in a period piece, doesn’t mean she has to be a second-fiddle character. In the film, Regina’s character is always like: “I don’t have any boss.” It’s important for me to show those things in any story I’m telling, and especially in a western. I want to deconstruct everything we thought we knew and deliver you another perspective. the character. And everything about that guy was Nat Love. So when we had our first conversation on FaceTime, he already had the role for me.

You keep hearing that people don’t watch westerns much any more, that they’re no longer a dominant artform. But for me they contain so many allegorical battles about civilisation, law and order, the moral universe we live in and how we get along together, they are still universal stories.

Absolutely. We haven’t been fed westerns; fundamentally they’ve stopped

What was it like to get this cast together?

Some people we had read for us, but for most, it was the case of “These are the people we want.” People like Jonathan [Majors], I didn’t audition. I saw an interview he was doing for the film White Boy Rick [2018], and he was explaining something about the inner workings of his approach to being made. So they only come out now and again. But I think if you give us the stuff we want in the western – the stories – we will turn up. Maybe a big percentage of the population don’t like superhero movies, but then they went to see Black Panther. Let people have the artistic freedom to implement things to push the genre forward. That’s what I was aiming to do with The Harder They Fall, and I think we accomplished that.

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