Gives western something weird in ‘The Harder They Fall’

NEW YORK (AP) – If you were in doubt that Jeymes Samuel, the director of “The Harder They Fall” and the British musician known as the Bullits, loves Westerns, then you have not heard him sing Dean Martin’s “My Rifle , My Pony and Me “from John Ford’s” Rio Bravo “.

“When Dean Martin shows up in a movie, you know: Oh, there’s going to be a song,” Samuel says with a huge laugh. “It doesn’t matter if the film is ‘Silence of the Lambs,’ he will find a way.”

Samuel tilts his head up and shouts lightly, “Coming home, honey, just my rifle, my pony and me.”

“The Harder They Fall,” which is currently playing in theaters and debuting on Netflix on Wednesday, is filled to the brim by Stetson with love for Westerns. It has all the gun fights, train robberies, salons and showdowns you would expect. But Samuel’s films also dust off many of the traditional limitations of an old genre and reinvent it to this day. “The Harder They Fall” is a lively and kinetic black western that sweeps to its own hip-hop beat.

“A lot of people live under the assumption that they don’t like westerns,” Samuel explains in a recent interview with Zoom from Los Angeles. “I always say to people: Yes, you do! You just do not like the way they are presented. You do not like the narrow depiction of everyone else outside the white man. But if it was presented in a different way, I’m sure you would see it. “

Samuel, who himself made the soundtrack (with many daring guests, including the film’s co-producer Jay-Z), gets his feature film instructional debut. It’s the culmination of a long-held Western dream for an artist – whose recording name nods to the 1968 Steve McQueen film “Bullitt” – which has long mixed film with music.

“I always said I watch music and I listen to movies,” Samuel says.

But just as hot as Samuel feels for westerns, some elements of the genre have always gnawed at him. For much of the western’s history, blacks rarely made it to the screen, and when they did, they were usually submissive background characters. It’s not just unreasonable, it’s inaccurate.

Historians estimate that as many as one in four cowboys were black. (The word “cowboy” originated as a racist term for a black ranch worker. A white was a “cowhand.”) Samuel notes that there were decades of the Old West after slavery ended in 1865. The iconic character of the Lone Ranger, for example. was based on Bass Reeves, the first black deputy marshal west of the Mississippi River. For decades, in a genre that more than any other served as a portrait of America, Hollywood whitewashed the frontier.

Samuel opens “The Harder They Fall” with a title card that notes that it is a fictional story, but based on real historical figures: “These. People. Existed.” For Samuel, he would not waste any time getting directly to the case.

“When I tell the story of‘ The harder they fall ’, I have had decades of frustration,” he says. “We’d not waste any more time. No more ‘Hey ho, Silver!’ The horse got more shine in the West than black people!”

“The Harder They Fall” plays Jonathan Majors as Nat Love and Idris Elba as Rufus Buck – two rival gunmen gathered in a revenge saga. There’s also LaKeith Stanfield as Cherokee Bill, Zazie Beets as Stagecoach Mary and Regina King as “Treacherous” Trudy Smith. It’s a formidable cast for a first feature, though Samuel, brother of musician Seal, has shot shorts, including a former western called “They Die By Dawn.”

When Tendo Nagenda, vice president of original films at Netflix, first read the script, only Elba was attached, but all of the song references were overlaid throughout. Nagenda met Samuel shortly after when he was visiting another film set in London.

“It’s hard to forget the first time you meet him. I felt like I had known him my whole life, ”says Nagenda about the charismatic Samuel. “The aperture with which one came to experience Westerns was quite narrow. So what his script did was expand the aperture. It felt like a familiar canvas from a different perspective. It’s not like an anti-movie by any means. It is a festive, very inclusive film that feels current because of how it is told. ”

Nagenda sees wider options for “The Harder They Fall,” which the streamer showed his faith in by giving it a $ 90 million budget. In recent years, Netflix has focused particularly on growing its own stable of franchises, and Samuel’s crowded landscape of larger than life lawless could be exploited for expansion.

“Our standard was: Having said and done, you would be thrilled to see a film of almost any character, to follow them into their own story – either prequel, sequel or at the same time,” says Nagenda. “You like them enough to be forced that you want to know more about them.”

One thing that characterizes “The Harder They Fall” is that in many ways it is not about race. White characters appear only briefly and to a large extent for comics. Samuel’s Western world is proud and almost entirely black – the characters simply exist – making it more akin to a Blaxploitation western like “The Legend of Black Charley” from 1972 with Fred Williamson.

There is a rich, if lesser known tradition of black westerns, like “Buck and the Preacher” with Sidney Poitier. But much of the genre’s iconography is white and masculine. Samuel is also proud to have women central and powerful figures in his film.

“We love ‘Unforgiven’ with Clint Eastwood, Morgan Freeman, Gene Hackman, Richard Harris, Saul Rubinek. It’s a bad movie,” says Samuel. “It’s a great, great movie. But every woman in it is a whore. “

Samuel is also fond of Sergio Leone’s “For a Few Dollars More” and Sergio Corbucci’s “The Great Silence”. He loves John Ford’s “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” but that movie also reflects for him what’s missing in Westerns. Although Ford made a film two years earlier with the impressive African-American actor Woody Strode (“Sergeant Rutledge” of the 1960s), Strode appears fleetingly in “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”; in one scene, his character is turned away from a bar.

“He could not even get a drink at the bar. Woody Strode was the most chiseled, godly black man, and he could not even get a drink where John Wayne was, ”says Samuel. “Those are the things that turn my nose up at those movies.”

Samuel remembers that as a 13-year-old he found a different story while flipping through the library’s books about the Old West, amazed to learn how different the time was than how he had seen it depicted.

“This movie to me,” he says, “is almost like a calling.”

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Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP

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This story has been updated to correct the wording of the title card and spelling of “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.”

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