Directed by Samuel and produced by Jay-Z, the cinematic caper is slick, stylish, and a total hoot, starring Jonathan Majors, Regina King, and LaKeith Stanfield
Westerns are cool again. Where once the genre was associated with racist and sexist tropes, the colour beige, and observing some white dude ride a horse at a torturously slow pace, Netflix’s The Harder They Fall has reinvented the western with an all-star Black cast and a hip-hop soundtrack. Directed by Jeymes Samuel and produced by Jay-Z, the cinematic caper is slick, stylish, and a total hoot, regardless of if you watch it at home or in a theatre – the latter is advisable, though, to glimpse LaKeith Stanfield in his full cowboy glory.
For its world premiere, The Harder They Fall opted for a particularly ostentatious venue, playing at the BFI London Film Festival as the Opening Night Gala, where Jay-Z and Beyoncé walked the red carpet into Southbank Centre (yes, that echo-y building at Waterloo that doesn’t charge you for using their Wi-Fi and toilet). In other words, everyone involved was in a celebratory mood. When I meet Samuel during the festival at Corinthia Hotel, he learns that it’s my first in-person interview since March 2020 and does the obvious: he unpacks his acoustic guitar and serenades me while I switch on my dictaphone.
“I sculpted all the songs into the script,” says Samuel, 42, who cowrote the action-comedy with Boaz Yakin. “They’re not needle drops. It’s like one long score. I wrote the songs in a minor pentatonic scale.” Upon seeing the confused look in my eyes, just above my mask, Samuel demonstrates a minor pentatonic scale on his guitar – the notes sound minor, in a pentatonic sort of way. “Even if I go afrobeat with Laura Mvula and Mayra Andrade, or if I go King Kong rhythm with Jay-Z and Jadakiss and Conway the Machine, or if I got opera with Pretty Yende – the songs weave in and out seamlessly.”
Since 2000, Samuel, the brother of singer Seal, has been recording music under a pseudonym, The Bullitts. Alongside an eclectic musical career (he sang on Gorillaz’s Plastic Beach and supervised on Jay-Z’s soundtrack for The Great Gatsby), Samuel has also obsessed over a dream: an all-Black western. In 2013, he wrote and directed They Die By Dawn, a 51-minute short about the Old West starring Rosario Dawson, Erykah Badu, and the late Michael Williams; the planned expansion into a feature, The Notorious Nine, collapsed in 2014.
So Samuels assembled a new cast for a new 19th century saga, The Harder They Fall, reportedly raising a budget of $90 million. “It’s big,” the director grins, when questioned on the figure. “Let’s just say it’s up there.” Was he pressured to cast a white guy called Chris at any point? He shakes his head. “I don’t think another studio outside of Netflix would have made it, especially with a first-time feature filmmaker. Netflix believed in the project, and me, all the way, and gave me absolute freedom.”
The western starts with Rufus Buck (Idris Elba) murdering two parents in front of their child, Nat Love; fast-forward a few years, Nat (Jonathan Majors) is now an adult, seeking revenge. Once Rufus is rescued from a prison cell (on a train, of course) by a gang led by Treacherous Trudy (Regina King) and Cherokee Bill (LaKeith Stanfield), the two forces go to war. On Nat’s side, he’s backed by gender-fluid Cuffee (Danielle Deadwyler), Jim Beckwourth (RJ Cyler), Bill Pickett (Edi Gathegi), and an old flame, Stagecoach Mary, played with pizazz by Zazie Beetz.
“What’s special about this film is that the Black people aren’t defined by whiteness. The villains aren’t white. It’s in this insular world where Black people just live, and are living their lives” – Zazie Beetz
“What’s special about this film is that the Black people aren’t defined by whiteness,” says Beetz, 30, over Zoom, taking a break from shooting Atlanta season four. “The villains aren’t white. It’s in this insular world where Black people just live, and are living their lives. Which was also historically something that happened. Black people created their own towns and communities, and were living with each other. They were able to do that because the West had less of a social structure in the way that other established parts of the country had.”
While Beetz is generally laidback as Van in Atlanta, Mary introduces herself in The Harder They Fall on stage, bellowing a stomping blues track in a rowdy brothel bar. “I love to sing!” Beetz exclaims. “My first love was theatre, and I wanted to be on Broadway.” Later on, Mary is crooned to by Nat, who bursts into song twice as if he’s in a bona-fide musical. Given Samuel’s playful, almost dreamlike direction, Nat’s transition into his own old West Side Story feels completely natural. So much so, Majors, when I meet him in person, performs a few lines for me, a cappella, at Corinthia Hotel: “Away with the wind she goes, away with the wind she blows…”
Majors, who has the most screentime of the ensemble, tells me, “You sing when you can’t talk anymore. Notes are thoughts. Nat can’t say that to her. It wouldn’t make sense. It would be silly. But him singing it is the only way his love can be expressed. Nat also sings before he’s about to go to war. War and love are not mortal battles, they’re spiritual battles. You have to elevate yourself to get into that mind-set. It’s the communication of that vibration.”
Instead of auditioning, Majors was hired when Samuels watched a YouTube interview he did for White Boy Rick. Since then, the 32-year-old actor has become one of the most recognisable faces on the planet, starring in Lovecraft Country, Da 5 Bloods, and as the villain in Loki and the upcoming Ant-Man sequel. I let him know that it’s my goal that he should be cast by a famous director through our own interview, perhaps Noah Baumbach. “Noah Baumbach,” Majors says, “if you’re gonna do Marriage Story 2, holler at me.”
“It’s not a spaghetti western. It’s not like an old Hollywood western. I wanted people to come away with rhythm and something cinematic” – Jeymes Samuel
When Majors and Beetz aren’t singing, the soundtrack flaunts original tracks by the likes of Jay-Z, Kid Cudi, and Lauryn Hill. Equally memorable is how characters ride horses to old-school reggae and dancehall, the trotting somehow calibrating itself to the music. (Beetz assures me this is due to the editing.) “I wanted to give The Harder They Fall its own signature, just like Ennio Morricone gave Sergio Leone’s movies their own scope,” Samuel explains. “It’s not a spaghetti western. It’s not like an old Hollywood western. I wanted people to come away with rhythm and something cinematic.”
“And then I had a eureka moment. I was thinking of Barrington Levy’s song ‘Here I Come’. Every time I heard that, I imagined horses galloping super-fast. And I thought: dub! Dub is the secret sauce of this movie! It ain’t spaghetti, it’s more rice and peas. It’s a plantain.” Just don’t refer to it as a rice-and-peas western. “Hollywood named those Italian movies ‘spaghetti westerns’, insulting them. They didn’t know that Leone was changing cinema forever.”
While westerns have long seemed outdated, The Harder They Fall arrives shortly after Sion Sono’s Japanese spin on the genre, Prisoners of the Ghostland, and just before the release of Jane Campion’s gorgeous The Power of the Dog. With the cowboy aesthetic back in fashion, you could do worse than turning up to the office dressed like LaKeith Stanfield and Regina King’s characters, horse and top hat included.
“We’ve taken this old genre and added a modern twist that I hope people resonate with,” Beetz says. “It feels different than the traditional John Wayne western, which has its place in our cinema history and was an iconic time. But I don’t think we just recycled it. We upcycled it, changed it, and made something exciting and new.”
However, race isn’t completely ignored. Later on, Nat visits Maysville, a literally white town – the ground and buildings are all painted white. In a local bank, the white residents stare at Nat with bafflement that he would set foot inside. “(The Blackness) is suggested but it’s not the topic of the day,” Samuel says. “That feels amazing, to do that. You don’t hear the N-word in this movie once. Just because it’s a period piece, it doesn’t give people license to call us N-words all the time.”
“I wanted to keep the tropes we love. Bank robberies, train robberies, jailbreaks, gunslingers, quick draws. I wanted to keep everything we know about the Old West and the vistas. And everything else I turned on its head” – Jeymes Samuel
Samuel, who grew up in London, shouts out the BFI and Screen on the Green in our conversation, while citing For a Few Dollars More and Unforgivenas, for the moment, his two favourite westerns. As for the genre as a whole, Samuel says, “I wanted to keep the tropes we love. Bank robberies, train robberies, jailbreaks, gunslingers, quick draws. I wanted to keep everything we know about the Old West and the vistas. And everything else I turned on its head.”
The musicality extends to the rhythm of the snappy dialogue, such as Stanfield, in non-mumbly mode, dictating how strangers should walk, or Majors’ approach to improvisation. “I’m DLP,” Majors says. “Dead letter perfect. I know punctuation.” Yet, like in a recording studio, Majors was allowed to try out new lines as long as they obeyed the tempo. “It’s like jazz. You’ve got to keep time. You can’t change that. You can fill it with accidentals, and never change the key signature.”
While no one can confirm whether Jay-Z has seen the Atlanta episode in which Stanfield’s character makes fun of him (“Jay-Z, he’s like 65”), Samuel explains that the rapper was heavily involved throughout The Harder They Fall. “Jay and I were talking about the story points and character motivations in They Die By Dawn,” the director says. “It led us to The Harder They Fall. It was the same. Every time I made a change, I’d check in with him, and we’d go over the character motivations… He does two songs on the soundtrack. We cowrote the title track. He was always contributing musically, but also listening as a fan.”
When Nat grabs a guitar and performs a recognisable riff, it’s actually the introduction to Jay-Z’s “PSA (Public Service Announcement)”. “There’s a very present, intelligent aggression about Shawn Carter, about his music, about his presence in the world,” Majors says. “It’s very regal, in a way. Because he was producing this film, because his zeitgeist influence is so powerful, and because his name was on it, there are elements where, you know, I walk like a ballplayer. I listen to him all the time. His music was in me, because Nat has the potential in his own world to move and operate in the same way. Jay-Z made The Blueprint. Nat Love is making The Blueprint in the New West.”
“(The Blackness) is suggested but it’s not the topic of the day. That feels amazing, to do that. You don’t hear the N-word in this movie once. Just because it’s a period piece, it doesn’t give people license to call us N-words all the time” – Jeymes Samuel
Another musical highlight is when Mary battles it out, in time, to Fela Kuti’s “Let Start”, delivering blows in accordance with the instrumentation, then primal screaming towards the heavens. “It was incredibly cathartic,” Beetz says. “A full-on chest, spirit scream. That was one of the last days of shooting, too, so it was getting it all out.” So, getting all her COVID frustrations out? “Yeah, in a very non-COVID compliant way, I suppose, screaming all my screams out.”
Filming was supposed to start in March 2020, in Santa Fe, until you-know-what happened. A six-month hiatus followed. I ask Beetz if shooting during the pandemic helped them establish a weird, alternate universe, but she responds with a firm no. “I would say that the coronavirus was incredibly distracting!” she says. “It impeded communication. It impeded our ability to bond on and off set. It made everything more complicated and lengthy. I would say it absolutely did not help at all… We did the best we could. We all really cared about this story and wanted to share it.”
Still, from watching The Harder They Fall, you wouldn’t guess it was a tough production, such is the composure of the shootouts, the tenderness of the musical interludes, or the extravagance of pretty much every wild, multicoloured frame. The characters may be named after real figures (“These people existed,” the opening text declares), but what’s on screen feels entirely fresh. Would Samuel consider westerns to be cool again?
“Hopefully when The Harder They Fall is out, the word ‘cool’ will be too miniscule to describe this new era of westerns,” Samuel says. “There are all these westerns coming, like The Power of the Dog, as we venture into this new place. The people who were working in the 40s and 50s and their mind-view of the world, I think it’s changed. Black people, white people, Asians, I think we can all enjoy stories as one. I just think we live in a whole new era.”
The Harder They Fall is in select UK cinemas now and launches on Netflix on November 3