I Never Thought Westerns Were For Black Folks – Until I Watched The Harder They Fall
The Harder They Fall is proof that untold history can command the big screen. For so long, Westerns have been oversaturated with images of white, cis-gendered, heterosexual men, and that sends the dangerous message that there can only be one kind of cowboy. But Jeymes Samuel’s latest film challenges that notion with a narrative that finally places Black cowboys front and center.
I never had much interest in watching Western movies; they just didn’t seem like my cup of tea. Mainly because I never saw anyone who looked like me represented – until The Harder They Fall came along – that is. As soon as I heard that an all-Black cast full of powerhouse actors – including Jonathan Majors, Idris Elba, Regina King, Zazie Beetz, LaKeith Stanfield, Delroy Lindo, Danielle Deadwyler, and Edi Gathegi – would tackle a Western, I made it my business to support its opening day in theaters.
“I recognise the importance of Black representation, but it’s so much more than that.”
You know the phrase, “Seeing is believing?” I wasn’t sure of my expectations for the star-packed film, but I knew I had to see what a Black Western film could really look like – and the sight was magnificent. Seeing King, Beetz, and Deadwyler all in their gorgeous shades and hues grace the screen as principal characters was beyond moving. I couldn’t keep the smile off my face as I watched them demand everyone’s attention like the total badasses they are. I laughed at the jokes, I cried when some of the characters went up in smoke, I swooned when Nat Love and Stagecoach Mary shared intimate moments filled with love, and I wholeheartedly beamed with joy. I was so immensely proud to see my people – Black people – embody these powerful personas in a way I could’ve only dreamed. It warmed my heart to see us reclaim what has always been rightfully ours.
In IndieWire, filmmaker Samuels shares a popular sentiment that many Black people and people of colour share when it comes to seeing themselves reflected in mainstream media. “As a child, you see all these things on television, and you just love what you’re given,” he says. “Then you get to an age where you want to start seeing yourself.” I can definitely relate to his words. Growing up, I was just happy to see someone, anyone, who even remotely looked like me onscreen – no matter how good or bad the content actually was. This stark lack of accurate representation made me desperate to see any diversity. So in a way, I settled for whatever I could get. As an adult, I recognise the importance of Black representation, but it’s so much more than that. We also need the right kind of representation – the kind we can enjoy with pride.
I admire that Samuel chose to create The Harder They Fall – a rarely-explored story in American culture. He wanted to finally put an end to the myth that Black cowboys do not exist – and I’m glad that’s the larger conversation taking place right now. According to him, Black people were actually the ones telling him Black cowboys did not exist in the Old West. “I was like, ‘All right, I’m going to dead this argument once and forever,'” he said. “Because when I do this film, it’s going to have all real characters in it that really existed.'” That’s what makes The Harder They Fall such a compelling film. It draws on historical context to add more authenticity and include the diverse stories of real-life Black figures from the Old West – like Bass Reeves (Lindo), Rufus Buck (Elba), and Cherokee Bill (Stanfield). It’s unearthing a part of Black history that we should have learned in schools.
“It’s unearthing a part of Black history that we should have learned in schools.”
The history of Black American cowboys is a crucial missing chapter in our culture. It’s the same story for a lot of Black history; racism and discrimination are responsible for the erasure of their rich legacy in the West. Historians estimated that one in four cowboys were Black during the 19th century. But you wouldn’t guess that statistic just by looking at the number of Western films with major Black characters. Just thinking about the idea of Black cowboys is something many couldn’t have fathomed before The Harder They Fall. “When a person sees a Black cowboy and they think that idea doesn’t make sense because all we’ve ever seen are white cowboys, you would be 100% factually wrong,” TikTok user positiveaf pointed out in a video last month. “You’re seeing a John Wayne or a Clint Eastwood, what you’re actually seeing is a very poor imitation of a famous Black cowboy.” Even the term cowboy – which he also points out is rooted in racism – was inspired by Black people.
Let’s also not forget the trailblazing Black women of the Wild West who are hardly ever acknowledged. The Harder They Fall brings their stories to the big screen, and it doesn’t go unnoticed. I love that Stagecoach Mary is a businesswoman whose saloons elevate the fictional town of Douglastown, and even those stretching all the way to Texas. And Treacherous Trudy Smith embodies the persona of a woman who asserts herself as her own boss. Even their final fight together shows how these strong, independent women matching brawn showcases their power. The meaningful contributions of Black women of the Wild West include building towns, schools, and churches. They’re worthy of more than just a footnote in our nation’s history.
The Harder They Fall isn’t just another blockbuster movie – it’s a cultural experience. It deserves to be felt, heard, and digested on a grand stage that only a theater can provide. We’ve already been robbed of this part of our culture due to erasure for too long. So don’t cheat yourself out of this rare experience by simply watching the film on your couch. Bear witness to it in person. Because without Black people, there would be no such thing as a cowboy.