Inclusivity, representation and creative expression are not words usually synonymous with the genre of the Western, but for polymathic Londoner Jeymes Samuel they have become just that. Directed and co-written (with Boaz Yakin) by the British singer-songwriter, music producer and filmmaker, Samuel set out to create a boundary-breaking movie that, though staying true to genre in all the best ways, showed a classic story through a wider lens. And he sure achieved it with The Harder They Fall.
A high-octane, sharp, playful, and powerful creation, the dynamic cast of Black actors play your archetypal characters – saloonkeepers, cowboys, sherifs, robbers – in a classic story of revenge. With Jonathan Majors as Nat Love, Regina King as Trudy King, Idris Elba as Rufus Buck, Zazie Beetz as Mary Fields and LaKeith Stanfield as Cherokee Bill to name a few, all out to achieve their (albeit violent) dreams, it’s a star-studded Blockbuster in all the best ways. On top of that, it’s got a killer soundtrack too, produced by Jay-Z and featuring tracks from Koffee, Fela Kuti and Nina Simone along with Jeymes Samuel’s vibrant original score.
Opening London Film Festival in October, The Harder They Fall is an absolute must-watch that you can catch in all its glory on the big screen at cinemas or in small screen glory on Netflix now. To celebrate the release, we caught a few of the charismatic cast in conversation with writer-director Jeymes Samuel back at the festival, where they talked nostalgia, music and how they found their voices…
Jeymes Samuel: Growing up, I was always up watching westerns. I love cinema but the genre of the old West was especially alluring to me. I’ve always said that the scopes they showed us all stories from were really narrow – they didn’t really leave a way on either side for any other interpretation. Women of all colours would be subservient, and if you were a person of colour, you would be less than human. So, although I love the genre so much, it just made me want to do more with it: broaden the scope.
Idris Elba: I didn’t have a choice in the matter. [laughs] Jeymes and I have known each other for a long time and yes, it’s definitely unique to do this as two Londoers. But definitely [nostalgic], I grew up watching westerns – my dad loved Bonanza – and to have this moment to bring that back redefined in this way, it’s definitely special. So, I was on board from the very beginning.
Regina King: For me, I am not a fan of Westerns. It was all Jeymes. I met him on FaceTime and he just expressed his vision – he even picked up his guitar and started playing some of the music he’d written already – the way he described the shots and the music played with the images: it’s like Jeymes thinks in music. So I was like ‘Gosh, if Westerns were like this, maybe I would like Westerns’! And I was gonna have the opportunity to work with Idris again. It’s been quite some time since we’ve got to dance together so that’s what sold me.
Jonathan Majors: Well, I guess it’s a mixture of a few things. I grew up in South Texas and the Western was something I did grow up with. My grandfather used to watch them with my father, but my parents and I also kind of lived in a Western. I grew up on a farm, I grew up around horses, I grew up around shutdowns, I grew up around hazzan and all the elements. I think when I first read the script, I thought ‘okay, well I don’t think we’ve seen this before although I’ve lived it’. And then again, Regina and Idris. Idris was attached to it so I thought, ‘Okay, well, we got something going on here’ and then I spoke with Jeymes and Jeymes does live and speak in life through Western. There’s something about the danger of Western, something about the feral grind of the nature of Western. You’re the nature, you deal with some real morality. You’re doing some real thing. You’d be on the frontier and trying to figure it outside trying to jump into that.
JS: With COVID a lot can change: the script can change, the characters’ stories, but this version of this movie was this cast. When Johnathan Majors was a cast to play Nat Love, I hadn’t seen anything that he was in. Nothing. I didn’t ask him to read the script. In fact, he was doing this interview for White Boy Rick and he was talking about his process,…breaking it all down and I was like, ‘That’s Nat Love’.
RK: Very important. I mean, I think it’s always important, not just in Westerns but especially in period pieces. The thing that’s so unique about this piece is that Cuffee, Stagecoach and Trudy are so different, but their existence is not based on any man or a child or a parent or some story that has to connect them to something else other than them being who they are. To have three women that are so different but so sure of themselves, and still have those layers, not be one dimensional, was exciting to see. And then for a man to have been the one to create them, it makes it even more special.
IE: Good question. I mean, knowing that, some of these characters are all real people… Rufus Buck was this really interesting man: he was this very young (at the height of his writing was about 20 or 19) biracial Black man in 1800s America. I really had that to look at it and thought about Jeymes’s reimagination of it. It’s super appealing because i was allowed to bring this character to life and place him into Jeymes’s universe, right? So, he’s a ruthless guy but he’s also a guy that essentially is progressive. Rufus is about at the time where Black people will be non-marginalized but moved from town to town and not allowed to stay in the major towns. This was a man that tried to create a safe space, albeit doing it ruthlessly. He had some substance to anything that’s filmed. So that was appealing. Also, I had an opportunity to work with Regina again and Trudy is such a formidable character. I remember one of the first conversations Regina and I had [about this movie] was how it’s interesting that there isn’t a romantic plot to this character or this relationship. We celebrate that as actors because it just meant that we were head-to-head – literally at one moment in the film, I put my head on her head in this moment – but there was this equality of our characters, which was really touching and moving and different.
JM: The interesting part about that for me is that when I read the script, we don’t meet the man up until maybe seven pages in, but for me the most important part of Nat Love is what happens in those first seven pages, of course, as our prelude to the film. You see a young boy who’s ten years old, who witnesses one of the most horrendous things any human being could experience: the violent death and murder of his mother and father. And so that let me know off the top I thought, ‘We’ve got a long way to go’. We’ve all heard the phrase, ‘Heal the boy, save the man’ – you know, ‘Heal the girl, save the woman’ – that was the mission. And then we were in the West. So the most interesting part about the process was what happened between ten years old and 33? What happened to him? How did he become this man? Well, first off, he survived. And so how did he survive? So the trauma that he had had to be healed. And he had to heal that by getting what he needed. He lost love, he lost protection and something unfair happened to him. It’s so interesting that you say equality because that’s kind of the driving force for Nat. I remember writing on my script, ‘I just want to make it even’.,, which is why when we get to the to the end of our story, that inner conflict is so real and so raw because what Rufus has done, by all accounts, is fair and now there’s reckoning – an internal reckoning. And then there’s the horse ride and there’s the guns and then there’s all those things. But all of that was fuelled by that pain, that discomfort to make it even: ‘You’ve put me all the way down the hill at such a young age and I’ve got to get back up top to be whole.’ So that was the internal work and preparation for it.”
JS: Mine and Jay-Z’s relationship goes back. We worked on The Great Gatsby together, and few years before that we were working on Jay Electronica’s album so we go back. Working with Jay is just like breathing. He’s so giving, a really generous collaborator but interesting thing is that he’s super into literature and cinema. We were working a lot of the times on the story and filming as much as or more than music. I think people hear the name Jay Z and they automatically assume it was a musical collaboration but it wasn’t. He’s a real film fan, and he’s as knowledgeable about Westerns as someone else – and just filming in general. I think if you look at his discography from the beginning, on his first album there Al Pacino references… His music has always been like cinema. And then there’s other times where you just marvel. He doesn’t use a pen. He just stores all of this information in his head and when he’s writing lyrics, his eyes are closed, just listening to music. Even when we’re writing, like when we co-wrote the title track together, The Harder They Fall, and we were on the last verse. And when I’m writing, I use a pen because I cannot remember the line I wrote literally 33 seconds ago. And he’d be looking and you can see frustration building up… He just stores all of this information in his head.
JS: It’s really interesting because all the westerns I grew up watching, I was watching them on TV. We have to embrace the times. People watch things on small-screen more than they ever have. I don’t make a film for people to watch on their phones – not even their iPads – but I think what Netflix has done is brought film and entertainment around the world in a way that it wasn’t before. Everyone can experience the same thing at the same time. Everyone here is in England so you all know my pain. Remember the days a film would come out in America and you had to wait to see it? Six months! Damn the UK release date! Then there’s Netflix, which blasts it around the world at once. You can’t ask for a better place. Also I don’t know if another studio would have made The Harder They Fall to this level, and they embraced it and doubled down – in the pandemic when other films were getting shut down, Netflix doubled down: ‘You are definitely going to make this movie’. They went super, super hard, were so supportive of it.
James Lassiter: The reason, it was important for us to do on Netflix, if we’re going to tell a story like this, with this catalyst, the goal is to have as many people to have access to and sometimes when you do a theatrical release, there are these built-in biases like no one wants to see an all-Black cast. I know for a fact. But still in certain territories around the world, they will tell the studios, this movie is not for us. They’re not really in tune with how the younger generation feels so I know that this movie had a shot from the beginning. What Netflix allows is, around the world, everyone has access to it and we will have as many people as possible seeing the movie now. That was the goal. That’s why Netflix was the right choice. And not to mention the fact that they were really enthusiastic.
RK: Yes, for me it’s interesting that we tend to mirror the same sentiment a lot of times. I think that as far as the characters are concerned if it’s not rooted in heart then I’m not interested as an audience member. I’m reading something as a member of audience first, whether it’s comedy or drama, if there’s no heart to it that’s what keeps you keeps you there and then as real people we’re all always in this moment as the result of the circumstances that happened in our lives. Because of that, we’re all very complex. We’re not black and white. We’re a spectrum. It’s important that this exists in a character that I’m playing because that’s really the point of the storytelling, so people become a part of the story, meaning they’re like ‘wow, I saw something from that perspective’. There’s no way for Rufus and Trudy to just be ruthless. There’s no way for us to meet them when we do if that’s all their life was. That’s a love story there. There’s the love story that Trudy shares with Stagecoach. All that comes from the heart.
IE: One of the hardest things about making a Western is not doing Western acting. I think there’s only one moment where I really do some Western acting when I’m riding on the horse. I had to do that, I just had to. But me and Jeymes encouraged each other to get deeper under the skin of these characters. I think that my performance would be different if I hadn’t gone through the pandemic. It’s something I know that changed within us, matured within me as an artist that informed that spark especially within terms of compassion and ruthlessness what that looks. Rufus, on-page, he’s scary. We wanted to go deeper than that and figure out who’s underneath that. The Harder They Fall we thought it’s gonna be stopped by the pandemic, that the virus is going to kill us all but we stood back up. I was thankful for being healthy. It really gave me a life-changing perspective. I think I’ve ended up injecting some of that maturity into that character.
The Harder They Fall is out on Netflix and in select cinemas now.