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► The Harder They Fall is in UK cinemas from October 22.
So much African American mythology focusses on its relationship to whiteness, being subjugated, pursued or saved by it. One of the most joyous things about The Harder They Fall is its total disinterest in that dynamic. Instead, Jeymes Samuel’s Western gives us a delicious smorgasbord of Black talent across rival gangs of outlaws and keeps white supremacy on the periphery. Unlike Django Unchained, to which this film will be undoubtedly compared, these Black cowboys live in a largely self-contained society. A lone attempt of N-word usage is cut short by a bullet in the face from Regina King who almost breaks the 4th wall to deadpan, “They say anything that even start with N they gonna meet the same fate.”
It’s a classic revenge tale with our anti-hero Nat Love (Jonathan Majors) assembling a gang to take down the dastardly Rufus Buck (Idris Elba). Rufus is finally out of prison having been sprung from a train by his gang which includes Treacherous Trudy Smith (Regina King) and Cherokee Bill (LaKeith Stanfield). Nat is joined by his lover Stagecoach Mary Fields (Zazie Beetz), Sherriff Bass Reeves (Delroy Lindo), quick-drawing Jim Beckworth (RJ Tyler), voice of reason Bill Pickett (Edi Gathegi and gender non-conforming Cuffee (Danielle Deadwyler). The characters are based on real people but the story is entirely fiction, allowing Samuels some ludicrous flourishes and coincidences to have raucous fun with.
Where so many recent westerns have strived for gritty authenticity in sweat stained leather, Samuels gives The Harder They Fall a hyper-stylized polish, everything from Idris Elba’s gold pistols to Zazie Beetz many layered outfits look plucked from the pages of Vogue. The action is set to reggae and dub, which works well for the most part but occasionally distracts, tipping the film into expensive music video territory.
Largely, the film manages to stay on just the right side of ‘style over substance’ thanks to the calibre of the performances. Elba, King and Stanfield create such an enjoyable group of badasses that it’s only when their murder count reaches the double digits that it’s possible to stop rooting for them.
The Harder They Fall aims to be as realistic a depiction of life for Black people in the West as Moulin Rouge is of Victorian sex work, Samuel’s lens is unashamedly modern, colourful and cool. It is an imperfect but wonderfully fun debut that’s a welcome respite from white supremacy on and off the screen.
30 great films playing at BFI London Film Festival 2021
Unsure where to start with this year’s LFF? All of the films in this selection come with the seal of approval of Sight and Sound critics.
Originally published: 6 October 2021