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The forgotten Black cowboys of ‘The Harder They Fall’

| Friday, November 12, 2021

Doug Abell | The Observer

Warning: This review contains spoilers.

The existence of Black cowboys was a concept I honestly hadn’t given much thought until the release of the film “Concrete Cowboy.” It wasn’t that I was unaware of the brutal labor Black slaves were subject to, laboring as farmers or ranchers — I had simply settled with the thought that, regardless of the work done by slaves being the same as white frontier men, they couldn’t be cowboys. Black people weren’t cowboys. This was the narrative portrayed through decades of cinema, a narrative that Jeymes Samuel challenges in the film “The Harder They Fall.” 

Jeymes Samuel crafts a glorious cast of Black actors, placing some widely familiar faces in the leading roles: Jonathan Majors as Nat Love, Idris Elba as Rufus Buck, Regina King as Trudy Smith, and LaKeith Stanfield as Cherokee Bill. Historically, Rufus Buck was a mixed-race Black and Creek Indian, who led a prominent gang in Arkansas and was hanged for his crimes at the age of 18 in 1896. Nat Love was a skilled cowboy and ex-slave from Oklahoma during the late 19th century who died in 1920. Cherokee Bill was Black, Mexican, Sioux, Cherokee, white and an experienced cowboy and criminal, hanged for his crimes in 1896 at the age of 20. These are just a few of the real-life figures who inspired this work of fiction, one that reveals that the wild, wild west wasn’t exclusively white. 

In the film, Nat Love seeks revenge against Buck for murdering his parents. Buck ventures to Redwood City, along with the sheriff and the rest of his gang to go head-to-head with the notorious convict. Rufus Buck’s gang, which consists of Trudy Smith, Cherokee Bill and others begin their quest by rescuing Buck from his prison transport. My favorite scene in the film was when Smith is confronted by the white conductor of the train that she and the Rufus Buck gang has halted to collect Buck — she cuts through the conductor’s hate speech with a bullet. Cherokee Bill suggests that the conductor could have been calling them “nincompoops,” and Trudy responds with, “We ain’t no nincompoop. If they say something that even starts with an ‘N,’ they gonna meet the same fate.” While director Jeymes Samuel’s decision to not use racial expletives directed towards his Black characters wasn’t one that I initially noticed, this refusal to accept degradation and disrespect from the white characters of the film — and Trudy’s display of authority in this particular scene over the conductor — was something I appreciated.

One thing I felt went overlooked in the film is that Rufus Buck aims to turn Redwood City into a safe haven for the Black community. Although a violent man, upon his release Buck doesn’t seek out trouble — it comes to him in the form of Nat Love. The two gangs meet in a duel of firearms through the town. The event virtually consumes the second hour of the film. When Rufus Buck and Nat Love finally meet face-to-face, Buck reveals a chilling secret that causes Love to pause before shooting Buck a total of six times, then gracefully adjusting Buck’s blazer to cover his blood-stained shirt. A small part of me hoped that the two would become allies following Buck’s reveal, but the realist in me knew this wasn’t going to happen with five minutes left of the film and the tendency for action movies to be more gore than plot. Overall, the film was excellently cast, action-packed and should leave a much-needed mark on the Western film genre. 

 

Title: “The Harder They Fall” 

Director: Jeymes Samuel

Starring: Idris Elba, Regina King, Jonathan Major, LaKeith Stanfield

If you liked: “Concrete Cowboy,” “Django Unchained,” “Posse”

Shamrocks: 4 out of 5

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