Picture a Western. There’s the dusty saloon, the tumbleweeds, the long stares, and the lone gunslinger. But there’s a problem. The person you’re seeing in your mind’s eye (probably) isn’t Black.
The Harder They Fall aims to right that collective wrong, drawing on real-world Black men and women from the Old West – cops, crooks, outlaws and entertainers – to help create what director Jeymes Samuel has termed 'The New West.'
The upcoming Netflix western centers on cowboy Nat Love’s well-trodden path of revenge after the murder of his parents at the hands of Idris Elba’s Rufus Buck. What follows is a stylish Tarantino-esque tale that pulls in several prominent Black figures from the West and infuses contemporary music – including tracks from Samuel’s long-time friend (and producer on The Harder They Fall) Jay-Z – for a razor-sharp blend of long-overdue mythmaking.
The vision was there ("He says all the time ‘I shot this movie in my head 100 times'," his lead Jonathan Majors quips) and the talent – Majors, Regina King, Idris Elba, among others – soon followed. This isn’t your grandaddy’s western. This is a new, old western.
"I came up with the story because of my love for westerns, and just how much I loved the genre, but also how much I was frustrated with the narrow viewpoints that Hollywood would give us," Samuel explains to assembled press, including GamesRadar+.
To do so, Samuel cherrypicked the most prominent names from 19th Century America to recapture that lost, untold history. The likes of cowboy Nat Love, legendary outlaw Rufus Buck, and Stagecoach Mary are hoovered up from across the period and placed into one space for the new Netflix movie, which is also getting a limited run in theaters.
"The reason why I wanted to assemble all of these unsung superheroes from over 100 years ago, is because no one would give me them in film. I wanted them all in one place. I want to have my cake and eat it," says Samuel.
"I wanted them all in the same place at the same time. So in order to do that, I had to create a fictional tale while I assembled these superheroes, like the Avengers."
The best of the West
It’s someone, ironically, who is about to become oh-so-familiar with Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, who is leading the pack.
Jonathan Majors, who recently appeared in the Loki series on Disney Plus, plays righteous, Robin Hood-style outlaw Nat Love – and is a performer who hasn’t shied away from roles steeped in conversations around race in recent years. His performance in Lovecraft Country endeared him to many. Now, he’s bringing a very different kind of history into the cold light of day.
"I think, for me, making [it] relevant and bringing the history forward and making it so ‘now’ that people become curious about who these people were past the two hours and 10 minutes that we work," Majors observes.
"To make a western that has such a popular canon – to add to that and to expand it [and] break open a whole other side of it that’s always been there is a very, very, very special thing to do."
It may have been a long, winding road to get here – which includes the cinephile Samuel being bought a Super-8 camera at the tender age of seven – but the director wants The Harder They Fall to be just the first word in a larger conversation. It’s a movie that will entertain, but also one that will encourage and, ultimately, one that will educate.
"The Harder They Fall is an interactive movie," Samuel says. "You watch the movie, and then you go home and hit Google and you find out about Rufus Buck."
For Majors, The Harder They Fall will not only push narratives forward but will set about "expanding the latitude of storytelling."
"There are so many different worlds that have been homogenized and that's just not true," he adds. "I hope that we can tell even more stories, with the same amount of support that we got to make The Harder They Fall."
But how do you wrangle an all-star cast with some of the most formidable creative talents working today in Hollywood? For Samuel, dealing with a cast that goes as deep as Delroy Lindo, Lakeith Stanfield, and Zazie Beetz, it wasn’t an issue. Instead, it was an incredibly satisfying experience.
"Everyone came to play, and everyone knew that the project was special," Samuel enthuses. "For me, at least, I can feel magic in the air. We were in the middle of COVID, but yet we all are with each other and unified, so to speak. I just think that magic that we felt between each other spilled onto the screen, and there was not really much I had to do to make sure everyone got the shine."
"All of these guys are super generous: they really don't step on each other's heels and lines, and they just all allow each other to shine. It was amazing," says Samuel.
As for the cast’s opinion on Jeymes Samuel? His relative inexperience in making feature films (he had previously only directed a short western called They Die By Dawn in 2013) was a complete non-factor.
"His vision was central for me," Idris Elba says. "I've known Jeymes for a long time. And he's really wanted to make this film for a long time. So I had the benefit of knowing him personally, and knowing what he wants to achieve with the film."
"The only thing that felt like a first-time director is his excitement," Regina King, who plays Rufus Buck’s ruthless right-hand, ‘Treacherous’ Trudy Smith, recalls. "It’s just refreshing to be around."
"In this case with Jeymes, he's such a visionary. He is baked into every second of this film and knew exactly how he wanted it," Elba adds. "So it didn't feel like a first-time director, in my opinion. He’s someone that was really living the 10-year dream."
Much like the characters and real-life history themselves, The Harder They Fall’s soundtrack, put together by Samuel, will stay with you long after the credits have rolled – and speaks to the director’s renaissance man approach. He is just as equally comfortable talking about the influences of spaghetti western icons Sergio Leone and Sergio Corbucci as he is about his close relationship with Jay-Z.
"My collaboration with Jay is like breathing for me," Samuel explains. That partnership helps lead to a soundtrack that celebrates every corner of Black culture, from African opera singers, to mainstream rappers such as Kid Cudi.
"For me, music and film are one thing [and] they exist in the exact same place in my brain… it's all one sonic explosion of culture in this movie," Samuel says.
Majors is effusive about his director’s approach to the intermingling of movies and music: "His visionary approach as far as the music goes – he’s a pop culture genius. He is like a walking algorithm of how to make something cool [and] how to make something popular. Yet, at the same time, he’s artistic enough that he can subvert those things and make it all very beautiful."
"The Harder They Fall is unique because James is the type of writer-director who thinks in music," King adds. "Every scene that's written, every image that you're seeing, he's writing it, or designing it with a rhythm in his head, and that's very unique."
Summing up his approach to a film that explodes with a ferocious verve rarely seen from a debut filmmaker, Samuel says: "I just really wanted to close my eyes and tell the story in the most truthful fashion to my personal character, and hopefully have the world enjoy it and speak the same language."
The world may not know it just yet, but the guiding hand of up-and-coming director Jeymes Samuel, anchored by his all-star cast, is about to rewrite and reclaim the language of westerns that were once drenched in a false tradition.
Instead, the Harder They Fall shows the west as it always meant to be: oddly familiar, yet telling a new kind of truth. This is pistols at dawn, a fresh perspective, and an untold history finally sweeping into town on the horse it rode in on.
The Harder They Fall is out now in cinemas and is streaming on Netflix worldwide from November 3. For more, check out the best Netflix movies streaming right now.