I do have some problems with Jeymes Samuel’s Netflix Original The Harder They Fall (2021) but Regina King as Treacherous Trudy Smith is definitely not one of them. Her onscreen presence commands much of the viewer’s attention no matter what scene she’s in and she melts me every time with her sinister I-wish-a-nigga-would glare.
But it would be easy to praise THTF for its representation of Black legends of the Wild West, its stylishness, and trying to make the overabundance of clichés and tropes that routinely accompanies the Western genre more appealing, fresh, and cool to next-gen moviegoers.
Because African Americans still thirst for representation on the big screen, especially in a genre where white men like John Wayne and Clint Eastwood (along with racial stereotypes and historical inaccuracies) have dominated for decades in Hollywood.
But if you’re going to make a Black Western with a run time of well over two hours then representation alone is not enough. There has to be a compelling story. And, unfortunately, Samuel opted to tell a fictional (yet familiar) tale of revenge by employing actual historical Black figures of the Wild West while borrowing previous oater templates of gratuitous violence and bloodshed that make THTF less of a love letter/ homage to classic Western films and more of a middling, unsatisfying imitation with an all-Black cast, some eyebrow-raising accents, but with a great soundtrack.
However, The Harder They Fall is Jeymes Samuel’s feature-length debut and I do believe a legitimate effort was made to breathe new life into a genre of filmmaking that remains very much white-centered and in dire need of a make-over.
This brings me to the questionable casting choice of Zazie Beetz as Stagecoach Mary. The real-life Stagecoach Mary Fields (aka Black Mary) was a product of slavery and I can’t help but feel that being plus-sized with a dark complexion would factor more into her experiences of living as a Black woman in the toxic whiteness of the Wild West. Her prominently hard features lend credibility to her well-earned reputation as a short-tempered, heavy drinker with a penchant for wearing men’s clothes, unlike the bright-skinned, the slightly more lady-like male fantasy that Beetz provides in the movie.
And Beetz may have talked tough in THTF but at no time did I see her as anything other than a romantic interest for Jonathan Major’s Nat Love (with chemistry, by the way, that ranged from zero to nada). Beetz casting is nearly a complete erasure of who Stagecoach Mary Fields was. As if Fields’ physical attributes were not part of her legend.
Colorism is as old as it is prevalent in Hollywood and should not be dismissed as some petty grievance among Black people trying to decide who’s Black enough. And to claim that his film is not a “biopic” as Samuel does during an Insider interview is disingenuous and doesn’t excuse him of being guilty of colorism. But it does expose his lack of creativity which is why The Harder They Fall falls short of contributing anything significant or groundbreaking to Black Western cinema.