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review

The Jay Z-produced film makes good on realizing the frenetic energy and realistic-yet-sprawling action that the genre has been known for.DAVID LEE/NETFLIX†© 2021/Netflix

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The Harder They Fall

Directed by Jeymes Samuel

Written by Jeymes Samuel and Boaz Yakin

Starring Jonathan Majors, Idris Elba and Regina King

Classification R, 130 minutes

Opens in select theatres Oct. 22; available to stream on Netflix starting Nov. 3

Buoyed by its urgent yet playful references to the real-life history of the Black West, Netflix’s newest genre outing The Harder They Fall is an energetic and poppy crowd-pleaser of a film made even better by its punky indifference toward staid conventions of period filmmaking. Directed by English filmmaker Jeymes Samuel (brother of singer Seal), the film is a lively first feature from a director who clearly knows what genre fans want.

Featuring an all-Black cast portraying fictionalized versions of well-known historical figures of the Black West, the film – much like Samuel’s short film, They Die At Dawn – features a stacked cast of actors in both starring and supporting roles, from onscreen titans Delroy Lindo and Regina King to relative youngsters LaKeith Stanfield and Jonathan Majors.

Majors (The Last Black Man in San Francisco) stars here as Nat Love, an outlaw out for revenge on lifelong enemy Rufus Buck (Idris Elba), who, having murdered Love’s parents in front of him as a child, has just been released from prison.

The Jay Z-produced film makes good on realizing the frenetic energy and realistic-yet-sprawling action that the genre has been known for. And when the discourse surrounding contemporary genre filmmaking roots itself in issues of authenticity and knowledge of the canon, the fact that Samuel is both a fan and student of the Western only bolsters the originality of his film, while situating itself within its own onscreen lineage.

The stylistic flourishes here, of which, fantastically, there are many, are those of a director sure of his footing in terms of reinvigorating a mode of filmmaking that has too long centred on white histories, both onscreen and off. For Samuels – who begins his film with the words, “These. People. Existed.” – The Harder They Fall is not just a playful exercise, but also a reparative mode of filmmaking that emphasizes the Black history of the West is not an alternative one, but rather one that is too often unseen or unheard of.

The conventions of the Western allow for a refreshing onscreen collectivity, where blockbuster actors Elba and King (the latter playing Treacherous Trudy, Buck’s self-assured and steely-eyed No. 2) are afforded the same reverence and autonomy as supporting performers such as the fantastic Edi Gathegi as sharpshooter Bill Pickett, R.J. Cyler’s quickdraw showman Jim Beckwourth, and the scene-stealing Danielle Deadwyler, who portrays Cuffee, modelled on Cathay Williams, the first Black woman to enlist in the U.S. Army (while posing as a man).

At times, though, it feels like the film struggles to fully situate all of its characters within the limits of its narrative and duration. Between Buck and Love’s gangs – not to mention Lindo’s reserved portrayal of Bass Reeves, the first Black deputy U.S. marshal west of the Mississippi River – we’re introduced to myriad characters, all worthy of their own individual film.

The conventions of the Western allow for a refreshing on-screen collectivity.DAVID LEE/NETFLIX/Netflix

While coyly playing with historical accuracy is clearly the bread and butter of Samuel’s remixed meta-history of the Black West (for instance, Nat Love and Bill Pickett were not outlaws, but rather cowboys; likewise, several characters in the film would have never crossed paths or even timelines), the casting of light-skinned actress Zazie Beetz as Nat’s love interest Stagecoach Mary has, rightfully, precipitated wider discussions about the continuing and deep-rooted issue of colourism in Hollywood.

That Stagecoach Mary (a dark-skinned Black, fat woman in real life) would be played by an actress such as Beetz is a deliberate act of erasure, especially when there are more than a handful of established dark-skinned Black actors who could’ve been cast in the role. Likewise, it’s worth noting that, in Samuels’ They Die At Dawn, similarly light-skinned actress Erykah Badu was cast as that short film’s iteration of Stagecoach Mary. Adding insult to injury, Beetz’s portrayal feels lifeless onscreen. This failure, and clear machination of desirability politics given that Stagecoach Mary is the only love interest onscreen, becomes only even more apparent given the ratio of men to women who appear here.

Fans of the Samuels’ strong authorial vision and penchant for gritty, yet humorous, genre filmmaking will have to sit with this clear misstep alongside the film’s successes.

Ultimately, The Harder They Fall is a somewhat harried gesture toward what original genre filmmaking might look like: vibrant worlds and characters, a return to individual style and form over contemporary trends, and, most of all, the overarching sense that it is purposefully not taking itself too seriously.

In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a Critic’s Pick designation across all coverage.

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