Netflixable? A Spaghetti Western featuring African Americans of the Old West — “The Harder They Fall”

British singer-songwriter and filmmaker Jeymes Samuel got Netflix money and an all-star cast to make his follow-up to “They Die By Dawn,” a Western that gathers many of the most famous or notorious African American figures of the Old West into one story.

“The Harder They Fall” is a Blaxploitation pastiche of Spaghetti Westerns, resetting the West — brutally violent, lawless and Darwinian by myth — as a largely Black world where whites are train riders or bankers and bank customers to be robbed, or genocidal Army troopers to be massacred.

It demands an open mind — not for the characters and stereotype-smashing casting. As an opening title points out, figures such as Nat Love, “Stagecoach Mary,” Rufus Buck and Bill Pickett? “These. People. Lived.”

But as he fills the screen with an A-list that includes Oscar winner Regina King, Idris Elba, Delroy Lindo, LaKeith Stanfield and others, self consciously and randomly references African American cinema classics, peppers the dialogue with a Tarantino-load of Samuel L. Jacksonisms and layers the soundtrack with reggae, hip hop and R&B, Samuel goes beyond parody and settles on just grating.

Samuel is plenty flippant. He’s just not that damned funny.

From the first moments we see costume-designed, dry-cleaned and pressed characters, gold-filagreed pistols toted by players who, as Our Lord Blackadder once cracked, “ride a horse rather less well than another horse would,” big things and small take anybody who’s ever seen a Western out of this one.

Samuel and his cast lean on “the cool parts” and “cool lines” and upend conventions, sure. But blowing so many details — beyond the intentional anachronisms — is too Sergio Leone Lite even for me.

Jonathan Majors of “Lovecraft Country” and “Last Black Man in San Francisco” is Nat Love, a preacher’s son who survives his parents’ murder, but bears the knife-mark on his forehead of their killer, Rufus Buck (Idris Elba). Needless to say, Love is looking for revenge on “the Devil himself” well into adulthood.

Nat Love’s gang robs Rufus Buck’s Crimson Hood gang, kills a lot of them, and sets up a showdown after Rufus makes his escape from custody.

So we’ve got Nat and his compadres — including old flame, shotgun-armed singer, saloon-keeper and shootist “Stagecoach” Mary Fields (Zazie Beetz), transgenderish bouncer Cuffee (Danielle Deadwyler) and others — taking on Rufus, Cherokee Bill (Stanfield), saloon-keeper “Terrible” Trudy (King) and company.

Deadwyler, of the indie Appalachian thriller “The Devil to Pay” (Track that down!) pretty much steals the show, a badass born to be under-estimated. Gunslingers?

“I seen faster,” she spits.

Where?

“In the mirror.”

Not a bad bouncer, either.

“Don’t nobody come in here gunned-up or they might could get gunned-down.”

Racial commentary is limited, which kind of misses the point of it all. Just “I seen the Devil, and Rufus Buck ain’t him — he white,” from Lindo’s Marshal Bass Reeves. And a backstabbing sheriff (Deon Cole) is dismissed with “A man like you’d have us all subservient to the end of our days.”

“You gonna just let us get away Dred Scott free?”

The story’s so “Silverado” conventional that “The Harder They Fall” needs its novel casting and soundtrack gimmicks and “Quick and the Dead” gunplay to be the least bit watchable.

Extreme close-ups for the stare-downs, split screen shootouts, oozing wounds and blasted body parts brought to mind the earlier martial arts outings of rapper-turned-filmmaker RZA — a superficial grasp of genre, whistles-and-bells action editing and the like. RZA got better.

I tried to get into the bloody campiness of it all, the anachronisms and all that. But this is a seriously soulless affair, all bullets and blood and no buckskin or satiric bite. There’s nothing wrong with the pitch, the casting (well, some folks need riding lessons) or settings. It’s the plot, the story arc and execution that Samuel screws up. And the details.

That spoils the pseudo-serious send-up he set out to make, and leaves “The Harder They Fall” far short of the parody or even homage it might have been.

Rating: Rated R for strong violence and language

Cast: Jonathan Major, Idris Elba, LaKeith Stanfield, Zazie Beetz, Delroy Lindo, Danielle Deadwyler, Edi Gathegi, RJ Cyler, Deon Cole, Damon Wayans Jr., Julio Cesar Cedillo and Regina King

Credits: Directed by Jeymes Samuel, scripted by Jeymes Samuel, Boaz Yakin . A Netflix release.

Running time: 2:17

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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2 Responses to Netflixable? A Spaghetti Western featuring African Americans of the Old West — “The Harder They Fall”

  1. S.Co says:

    Sounds like a “whole lotta” Hating in this so-called review. The characters in this AMAZING FILM were portraying REAL AMERICAN ABORIGINES… ( NOT “AFRICANS or BLACKS nor NATIVE AMERICANS ) Our Ancestors graced upon this land before any other ethnic groups.! There will be more to come from us “Africannnnn Americannns” ( misnomer )…Creating films like this that are indicative of the actual factuals regarding early America…We now know the TRUTH ABOUT WHO THE REAL AMERICANS are…This movie is only the beginning.!! #StayTuned

    • Roger Moore says:

      Easy on the Red Bull, there, junior. Sounds like you need to follow the links in the review to read the “real” stories of the colorful real people in question. And maybe look up what “Aborigines” means.

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