Systemic racism suppressed the legacy of Black cowboys – this is starting to change

Based on real-life African American gunslinging legends, The Harder They Fall offers a different take on the Wild West

Tony Warner
Wednesday 20 October 2021 11:22
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The Harder They Fall

Jeymes Samuel’s new western The Harder They Fall arrives in cinemas this week and on Netflix from 3 November. With its slick visuals, exciting action sequences and a stellar all-Black cast including Idris Elba, Regina King and Lakeith Stanfield from Get Out, it’s sure to be a hit.

Expectant audiences may be surprised to find out that the classic plot, featuring an ex-gunslinger seeking revenge on an old nemesis who has busted out of prison, also encapsulates and references the real Black history of the American West as well as several old, Black westerns.

The title itself is a respectful nod to the 1972 Jamaican modern western starring Jimmy Cliff, and several characters in the film have the names of legendary, real-life cowgirls and cowboys.

Jonathan Majors, star of Lovecraft Country and soon to be super villain Kang in the Marvel universe, plays Nat Love. Love is a real person, also known as Deadwood Dick. He was born in 1854 during US slavery. Love was a crack shot cowboy and rodeo winner, rescued and nursed back to health by Native Americans, and later became a porter on the Pullman rail line. He even authored a book, The Life and Adventures of Nat Love. He died of old age in California in 1921.

Due to systemic racism, his story has been suppressed. The recently deceased Michael K Williams of The Wire fame played Nat Love in the 2013 Black western movie, They Die By Dawn, which also starred Rosario Dawson. That film was also written and directed by a certain Jeymes Samuel.

‘The Harder They Fall’ references the real Black history of the American West

Zazie Beetz, best known for her role in Deadpool, plays Stagecoach Mary. Mary was another real-life legend born around 1832. She is known in US history as the first African American female star route mail carrier. This means that during the days of the real Wild West, she was responsible for delivering mail by foot, horse or stagecoach through dangerous frontier territory at risk of robbery from various outlaws. She ran this service for eight years, and also built a convent with her own hands, travelled 1,600 miles to see a sick friend and was known for knocking men out and shooting them.

In They Die By Dawn, Erykah Badu also played a character called Stagecoach Mary, although neither Badu nor Beetz bear any resemblance to the real Stagecoach Mary.

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Samuel is not the first director to reference real characters in western movies. In 1922, when US cinemas were still segregated, Richard E Norman directed the Crimson Skull, which featured Black cowboys as heroes riding the range and even a Black love story. These items were rare at the time, but the film also starred Bill Pickett. Pickett was a real cowboy and rodeo star who was famous for wrestling adult cows to the ground with his teeth. Bill Pickett also features in The Harder They Fall.

Tony Warner is an expert on Black westerns and a historian who runs Black History Walks in London. ‘The Harder They Fall’ is in cinemas from 22 October and on Netflix from 3 November.

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