With the star-studded all Black cast – including Jonathan Majors, Regina King, Idris Elba, LaKeith Stanfield and Zazie Beetz – the perception of what a Western could be instantly changed for a generation who regularly fell asleep watching Wild West B-movies on a Sunday afternoon because they were too tired to find the remote. They could, it seemed, actually be good.
Jeymes Samuel, the film’s writer and director, sees The Harder They Fall not as an outright reinvention of the Western, but instead just a shift in perspective. Based on real outlaws who were notorious in America’s Old West, The Harder They Fall tells the story of Nat Love (played by Majors) who discovers that his enemy Rufus Buck (Elba) is being released from prison, and takes the opportunity to seek revenge.
Ahead of the London premiere, I spoke to Samuel and some of the cast about correcting history, turning a childhood obsession into a reality and shooting during a pandemic.
Making the ‘New West’
Jeymes Samuel (writer, director): I’ve loved Westerns ever since I was a kid. They were always on in the background, from TV series to the films. I love the genre, but I was always frustrated with the narrow vantage point. If you see a woman, they were subservient. People of colour were always subservient too. They always gave a reason for Black people to be in them – we’re getting shot, we’re slaves, we’re less than human. So, growing up, I always wanted to know more about that time period, and all of these characters were people who really existed.
Jonathan Majors (Nat Love): This is actually my second Western. My first was a film called Hostiles. That was shot in New Mexico too, and to our benefit a lot of the horse wranglers [on The Harder They Fall] were the same guys as before. So the horse I rode in the film was actually the horse that one of my fellow cast mates rode in the previous film.
Samuel: So you knew that horse from before?
Majors: Yeah, I knew Cinco.
Regina King (Treacherous Trudy): But did he remember you?
Majors: I’m from Texas, so the Western has always been around, in a way. But like Jeymes said, the Western is a time period in which a story is being told in a specific area. Like, Little House on the Prairie was my mother’s favourite show. So for me it’s the lineage of it, coming from that place and being brought up in the southwest. It makes sense to me, so I was intrigued by the genre.
King: Well, Westerns were a definite nap for me. The stories that were taking place in that period weren’t of interest to me, but to hear Jeymes’ version of a Western made me think, ‘If a Western felt, and sounded like, and looked like this…’ At that point I was only going by a visionary script and the fact that Idris [Elba] was cast. We had worked together many, many moons ago, so that was exciting. But to get this perspective of a genre that I thought was definitely not for me – or for anyone that looks like me – and all of a sudden feel like, ‘Why hasn't this been done before?’ It was exciting.
Idris Elba (Rufus Buck): There’s a missing link when we talk about American history. We kind of note that there's a period of slavery and then the revolution. But there’s a huge chunk of African American history that’s been wiped out. But the portrayal of that time is signified by Westerns. People forget that there were entirely Black towns. For us [Black British people], it’s period dramas, right? In the UK, it’s Victorian times, but for America it’s Westerns. They would show working class people in working class towns – cowboys, cowgirls, prostitutes and saloons – but they just eradicated Black people.
Samuel: The crazy thing is, we think about the Old West as this dusty time. None of those cowboys were living in the “old” West. It was the newest frontier – it’s the New West.
King: You will absolutely see yourself in [The Harder They Fall], no matter where you're from. With this time period, these were all people who were even closer to the descendants that we’re from. So I think all of us going into it had thoughts of, ‘Where did I come from?’ and, ‘Where did Trudy come from?’
Elba: There was definitely some research, you know. The reality of the characters, versus the portrayal, was different, so it made sense to research, but it wasn't like I was gonna research [Rufus Buck] like for like. It was to get a sense of the time period and who they were. He was a young, young man – practically out of his teens, in a teen gang. Life expectancy was shorter back then, so these kids were practically middle aged, but they were running shit and Buck was formidable.
Samuel: We didn’t shoot anything on a “set”. We were on location and then the pandemic happened, so we were in a bubble. We were literally living and breathing a Western – in a time where, if you run down the road, you're actually going to catch a disease and possibly die.
Elba: It was quite a big, sprawling cast; because of the way the story is told, everyone's sort of fragmented. I didn't get to see my guy [Majors] very much on set. We had a few scenes together, but we had to find ways to hang out socially because it's important to the fabric. The way Jeymes set his crew up is that he wants us to be close to each other – or at least be, you know, egging each other on, sparring with each other in real life – so that when we get on camera the chemistry is real.
King: Yeah, it was a challenge, because normally you get to commune and you get to know more of the crew, the cast and the city. It's a beautiful city [Santa Fe] and has all these things to offer, and usually you would go with a cast mate or a crew member on a day off and go whitewater rafting or something. But we didn't get to do those things, it was tough.
Majors: The idea of the West is that there’s lots of space between folks, and all you hear is a tale of somebody, or you have one single encounter with them and it sticks with you for a lifetime. There's something about the distance – there's sort of a danger of knowing that they're close, but you can't see them. There's a scene where I'm about 50 yards down from Trudy and everyone knows Treacherous Trudy Smith, and she makes it known that they know who Nat Love is. It’s like you’ve heard the rumour and now, here, they come true. The way it was shot, the way it was directed to the energy of the space, was electrocuted by that. Some of that energy was real: I’ve known who Idris Elba is for 16 years, and we’re less experienced with film sets than them – they’re veterans. But on set I felt secure enough to lean into that vulnerability.
Samuel: In the bank scene, Idris went completely off script. I was behind the camera like, ‘What hell is going on? This dude is a psychopath, he’s going to kill everyone.’ I was also told that [the actors] couldn’t do more than a trot [while on horses] and they need stunt men. But there’s a scene where [Majors] gets on his horse and he does a full tilt gallop, no hands, while shooting enemies on target. He stops and gets off at the end and I asked him where he learned to ride like that. He was like, “No, I can't ride at all, but Nat Love can.” I was like, The Harder They Fall is going to be the hardest movie ever.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.