The Harder They Fall marks writer and director Jeymes Samuel’s feature debut and pulls elements of fact and fiction together to create a picture of Black cowboys in 19th-century America.
The film, as a whole, is fictional, but the characters featured throughout are all based on real people, such as Idris Elba’s Rufus Buck who was the real-life leader of an outlaw gang called the Rufus Buck Gang. Likewise, Nat Love, played in the movie by Jonathan Majors, was a formerly enslaved person who became a cowboy.
“As a child, you see all these things on television, and you just love what you’re given,” Samuel said during an interview with IndieWire. “Then you get to an age where you want to start seeing yourself. The way I would see myself, I don’t relate to that. I can appreciate the story, but I can’t appreciate how you treat people of colour.”
Treacherous Trudy, played by Regina King, was also a real person (real name Gertrude Smith) but not much is known about her life.
“We know she came from Barbary Coast in San Francisco. Then she left, which meant she was well travelled,” Samuel told IndieWire.
“It’s not a biopic,” the director told Rolling Stone. “But it can change perspectives of what has been presented to us as the Old West.”
“When you think about Jeymes and his vision for the film in its entirety was never his idea to make everyone exactly what people may have read or researched,” King said in an interview with BBC. “This is more of an extrapolation of people that are real, which I think makes it more stylised, more fun,” Samuel said.
The plot of the film revolves around Nat Love seeking revenge on Rufus Buck as retribution for him murdering his family, with the subplot focusing on his love for Stagecoach Mary — played by Zazie Beetz. Stagecoach Mary, whose real name was Mary Fields, was the first Black woman to work as a “star-route” mail carrier in American history.
In reality, no historical record of the rivalry between Love and Buck exists, but as a long-time Western fan, Samuel was inspired to take these real-life people and their struggles and explore the connection with his own.
“I just loved the stories,” he told Rolling Stone. “I grew up in Mozart’s Estate in West London. And the things that we would experience I find bleeding into the story of The Harder They Fall. I wanted to show the cycle of violence that I grew up seeing.”
The film is certainly violent, with the New York Times noting that the brutality walks “the line between stylisation and sadism.” Samuel has been credited though, with balancing the gore with a stunningly vibrant colour palette. “The way I wanted the movie to look, visually, was like a painter [painted in] 35 millimetres,” Samuel said.
The Harder They Fall joins Netflix’s platform alongside another project starring Elba — Concrete Cowboy — which shines a spotlight on the fact that Black cowboys have existed throughout history, they have just never been given the same amount of attention that their white counterparts have.
“The Western cinema was so whitewashed,” Samuel told IndieWire. “America was whitewashed, narratives were whitewashed, so of course the Western was whitewashed because it was a niche in a genre in an industry.”
While the events portrayed in The Harder They Fall are fiction, we are reminded at the outset of the film that “These. People. Existed” and their story is worth exploring.
The Harder They Fall is now streaming on Netflix.