Netflix’s new western, The Harder They Fall, opens with an intriguing disclaimer: “While the events in this film are fictional … These people. They existed.”
Without it, viewers could assume that the film is a fictional tale, one of many Hollywood cases that reviewed historical periods and events with more ethnic minority characters than there actually were.
Except in this case, the opposite is true. A large number of cowboys were black, yet traditionally the film industry has cast white men in the main parts of westerns, with black actors generally in deferential roles.
Director Jeymes Samuel, who fell in love with westerns as a child growing up in West London, is eager to challenge viewers’ perceptions of the genre without implying that his film doesn’t belong to you – a delicate balance.
“I hate the phrase black cinema and black film,” he tells BBC News. “Because when you have a movie directed by Steven Spielberg with Audrey Hepburn and Richard Dreyfuss [1989’s Always], it is not a white film. So if there is no white cinema, there is no black cinema. Cinema is cinema.
“But if every time you put black people in a western and you say, ‘These people were slaves,’ and if every time you put women in a vintage movie or a western, they always make them super submissive, you have to do something. in this regard and draw attention to it.
“So it’s not a black film, it’s a film for everyone, but it’s a predominantly black cast, which tells the story of how they lived.”
There have, of course, been attempts to diversify the genre before. Variety’s Peter Debruge noted: “Oscar Micheaux was making black westerns a century ago, and the big screen saw notable examples through Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte in Mario Van Peebles’ Buck and the Preacher and Posse.
“However, the perception remains that the West was colonized by white cowboys who clashed with the black-hated villains (also white) while clearing the territory of Indians.”
Samuel’s love for the genre came from his parents, who regularly screened films in the family home. “I think I was attracted to them because it felt so real,” he says.
“It felt like they were really in that time and place with no special effects: real horses, real people. OK, that was hundreds of years ago, but it was like somehow, somehow, we really had cameras there. Westerns were. just the easiest thing for me to accept … I felt super connected to them. “
The Harder They Fall follows two rival gangs, led by Nat Love (Jonathan Majors) and Rufus Buck (Idris Elba). The film opens with a flashback of Love as a child, whose parents are killed in front of him by Buck at the dinner table.
Later in life, determined to take revenge, Love learns that Buck’s gang is breaking him out of prison and sets out to track him down. The result is two hours of very entertaining but extremely violent cinema; both gangs know how to get around a fight.
For Oscar-winning actress Regina King, who plays Buck’s partner in crime Treacherous Trudy, the lack of information about the figure in real life meant she could use an artistic license.
“When I did my Google dive on Gertrude Smith, I tried to spell it in a lot of different ways, and there’s really nothing coming out. So it was a little more liberating, because I didn’t have to be indebted to a certain look or idea of someone, “he says.
“But when you think about Jeymes and his viewing of the film in its entirety, it was never his idea to render everyone exactly what people may have read or studied … This is more of an extrapolation of people who are. real, which I think makes it more stylized, more fun. “
So where did Samuel draw the line with how much to stick to history and how much to fictionalize? “There’s no line!” he replied. “I just obey my madness and enjoy myself. I kept the good guys and I kept the bad guys. Outside of that, I took pure creative license and performed like my mom told me to do when I was a kid. Like. , ‘Go raise hell!’ “
“Vicious and unrepentant”
Netflix hasn’t won Best Picture at the Oscars yet, and this isn’t going to be the movie that will. However, he was widely praised by critics for his new take on the traditional western.
“Nothing should be unique forever, and this genre of film is perfect for deconstruction and reinvention as old stories should cover new ground with new representation”, suggested Deadline’s Valerie Complex.
“We can be heroes, villains and all … Not only that, but this film is fierce, unrepentant and has moments of lightness to balance the brutality. Is it perfect? No, but it could be a mainstream revitalization of a genre that many thought. was long dead. “
“Samuel presents a dynamic version of the western suitable for modern consumption”, Whelan Barzey said of the Empire. “If it’s more style than substance, it’s really an extraordinary style”, added Peter Bradshaw of the Guardian.
The film greatly avoids any use of racial slurs. “We are not n-words,” says Samuel. “I think what happened too much is that people think that if you put blacks in any form of vintage film, they have to be called the n-word a hundred times in a movie, and that’s an excuse.
“It was never like this with us, even in the days of slavery, the n-word was not used [as a] blanket [term]. I wanted to avoid that word and show people all their glory. “
King says, “It’s interesting that while that was Jeymes’ wish, it landed on you. You noticed the omission of the word. While there are other films that sometimes seem to go out of their way to make sure the word is used. And this is the creator’s choice. “
He stops for a moment. “Obviously I’m talking [Quentin] Tarantino movie! “She laughs.” I can’t say everything I just said and dance around it. But it is a choice, and everyone can choose to express their art in the way they want, we should allow a person to do it. You may like it or not. “
In recent years, the film and television industry has increasingly employed less white and less male cast. Think of the all-female reboot of Ghostbusters, or Jodie Turner-Smith’s portrayal of Anne Boleyn, and the racial diversity of costume drama Bridgerton.
Journalists are often grappling with the question of how important it is to consider these factors. On the one hand, you may instinctively want to support something different and forward-looking. Also, by drawing attention to it, you are signaling that you support it.
But on the other hand, if you talk too much about it, then you are probably strengthening the divide by implying that such movies and TV shows are not the norm and should not be treated as such.
“I know what you mean, [the more you do that], more [of a] novelty becomes, and you want it to be commonplace, “says Samuel.” But the fact is that it’s not commonplace. “
He argues that the industry will only change by calling attention to new approaches. “The reason I made The Harder They Fall is that they can make movies and write characters in westerns, and they don’t have to give a reason they’re there if they’re black, Asian, Latino, Native American,” he says.
“You can correct the image we have of Native Americans in the Old West, circling around a wagon with a white woman and her children inside. This is just the mythical Hollywood viewfinder, we just had to broaden the scope.”
The Harder They Fall is in theaters now and released on Netflix on November 2nd.
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