The western has long since ceased to be a popular and dominant film genre, yet they are still being made. Why? The most obvious reason is nostalgia and childhood sentiment. As long as there are still filmmakers who grew up with westerns – or with fathers who were fond of westerns – there will be directors and actors who want nothing more than to make a cowboy film themselves.
Musician and filmmaker Jeymes Samuel is such a person. As a child he developed a true passion for westerns. But with the complication that as a black boy in London he hardly ever saw a character on screen that looked like himself. He has now been able to rectify that with his debut film The Harder They Fall: an exuberantly designed, hyper-stylized and gory western in the spaghetti tradition of Sergio Leone and Quentin Tarantino, with an almost entirely black cast.
Samuel could only call on top talent: Idris Elba plays the super villain Rufus Buck; Regina King can be seen as his trigger-happy right-hand man Trudy Smith; LaKeith Stanfield plays the lightning-quick gunfighter Cherokee Bill; Delroy Lindo is Sheriff Bass Reeves. The plot revolves around revenge and is not very much about the body. But the beautiful design, good actors and obvious love for the genre make up for a lot.
A western is always as good as the final shoot out. The Harder They Fall has an epic denouement that can compete with the best. That multi-talented Samuel is also a musician cannot be denied: he signed the soundtrack with co-producer Jay-Z. Tellingly, the music is based on the reggae, dancehall and afrobeat that Samuel listened to in his youth. To spice up a battle scene, he uses Fela Kuti’s classic ‘Let’s Start’; a surprising choice that works great.
The Harder They Fall is not a western that takes the genre too heavily and seriously. That somewhat rubs against the more serious intentions that Samuel also has with the film. In interviews, he emphasizes that he wants to show that the old west of the US was not as exclusively white as Hollywood has led viewers to believe for decades. His characters’ names are based on actual African-American sheriffs, outlaws, and cowboys known from the history books, but rarely, if ever, in movies until recently. By giving his characters actual names of historical figures, he hopes to encourage audiences to delve into phenomena such as Nat Love and Stagecoach Mary.
Viewers will indeed have to do that themselves; with historical reality The Harder They Fall little to nothing else to do. An all-black Wild West in itself is, of course, just as unrealistic as the all-white Western that Hollywood has traditionally served up.
In reality, the western expansion of the US was driven by a multi-ethnic mix of populations: many cowboy traditions go back to the period when much of the later US was still in the hands of Mexico. A lot of work was done by the Chinese during the construction of the railways. The black soldiers (‘Buffalo Soldiers’) of the American army fought the indigenous inhabitants of the country as much as their white colleagues from the other regiments. It becomes even more complicated if we also consider the ‘mixed race’ mixture of ethnic origin; some of the legendary figures where The Harder They Fall asking attention to had such a mixed parentage.
According to historians, a quarter of the cowboys on the so-called ‘cattle drives’ were of African American descent. The cattle were driven over long distances – the construction of transcontinental railways later made those arduous journeys unnecessary. There are various readings about the mutual relationships between the cowboys: on the one hand there is the idea that their work was so heavy and dangerous, that the cowboys were so dependent on each other that there could be little racial animosity.
But there are also testimonies that the black cowboys were at the bottom of the pecking order and always had to do the most unpleasant work. In front of The Harder They Fall In any case, that is only relevant to a limited extent, because strictly speaking there are no cowboys in the film – soldiers, gunslingers, bank robbers, saloon operators and sheriffs.
The ‘first’ black western is The Harder They Fall certainly not. In the segregated United States, westerns were made for black audiences with limited resources, such as the successful film series Harlem on the Prairie (1937), Two-Gun Man from Harlem (1938) in Harlem Rides The Range (1939) with Herb Jeffries as a singing cowboy.
The wave of blaxploitation movies in the 1970s spawned some memorable westerns starring action heroes Fred Williamson and Jim Kelly. Not to be missed in the same period is the superior slapstick of Mel Brooks in Blazing Saddles (1974), starring Cleavon Little as a black sheriff who completely stresses out a white settlement.
A big-budget studio western with a black hero was created by none other than John Ford, who nowadays is often all too hastily dismissed as an interpreter of white supremacy. Woody Strode, an actor very dear to Ford, stars in Sergeant Rutledge (1960) a sergeant in the (segregated) United States Army, who is falsely accused of raping and murdering a white girl. He knows that as a black man he cannot get his justice during a trial and flees, even though he is innocent.
Why is he actually fighting in the ‘white man’s war‘ to the native inhabitants of North America? That question is also addressed by Ford in this remarkable film. Strode was almost an adopted son to him; Strode calls him ‘Daddy Ford’ in his autobiography.
Another black western that can count as a classic Buck and the Preacher (1972); the first film directed by actor Sidney Poitier. He himself plays a former soldier who must guide a caravan of African-American pioneers through unsafe territory. They are pursued by mercenaries who want to force them back to the southern plantations after the abolition of slavery.
Buck forms an unlikely duo with a con artist who poses as a pastor; a heavily grimacing, but amusing Harry Belafonte. The Harder They Fall thus stands in a tradition of black cowboy films, admittedly not very extensive, but not to be underestimated.
A version of this article also appeared in NRC in the morning of November 10, 2021