The 2021 BFI London Film Festival is finally here, and this year’s opening film, The Harder They Fall, ensures that it’s going to be starting with quite a few bangs.
The debut feature from director-writer-composer Jeymes Samuel is a thrilling tale of revenge set against a colourfully and vividly realised Wild West. It’s a work of fiction, but involving some legit, albeit oft-forgotten, black cowboys, cowgirls and lawmen; the film makes it clear from the very start that these people really existed.
The film’s gallery of rogues and antiheroes is personified by a stellar ensemble cast, including but not limited to Jonathan Majors, Regina King and Idris Elba. Majors plays Nat Love, in a quest for revenge against Elba’s vicious Rufus Black and his gang of outlaws. Along the way, Love rounds up his own gun-toting gang of miscreants, including his paramour “Stagecoach” Mary Fields (Zazie Beetz) and the braggadocious quick-draw Jim Beckworth (RJ Cyler), as well as one Bass Reeves: the legendary lawman, here played by the ever-brilliant Delroy Lindo. What follows is a bloody, stylish reclamation of the tropes and iconography of the Western genre, to showcase a breathtaking display of black excellence – both in front of and behind the camera.
Jeymes Samuel is a filmmaker who is already well acquainted with the genre, having made the 2013 short film They Die By Dawn. In hindsight, this earlier project plays as a practice run for The Harder They Fall, and Samuel’s first foray into features is thus incredibly assured, with no shortage of swagger throughout.
Samuels also flexes his experience and talents as a musician – he performs under the stage-name The Bullitts – to provide the on-screen action with a great score. This is combined with a killer soundtrack curated by co-producer Jay-Z, the highlight of which is Fela Kuti’s Let’s Start, which accompanies one of the film’s finest action sequences.
All of this and a sharp, often laugh-out-loud funny script neatly complement some standout performances from the packed cast. Regina King constantly threatens to steal the show as “Treacherous” Trudy Smith, and Elba’s Rufus Buck is an imposing, although rarely seen adversary, whose ends are surprisingly understandable despite his and his cohorts’ violent means.
The greatest draw from the ensemble though is Jonathan Majors as Nat Love. Love is the son of a murdered pastor, who “hunts down those who trespass against him, with no mercy.”, and who finds himself living the life of an outlaw in his quest for revenge against Black. His journey is almost entirely fuelled by vengeance, and in the hands of a lesser actor this role could have been nigh on monotonous, but Majors is so irresistibly charming that he more than overcomes any potential pitfalls for such a character. The palpable on-screen chemistry which he shares with Beetz’s Mary easily convinces that Love is not doomed to the destiny expected of a man on a revenge mission either.
The Harder They Fall is, in short, a barnstorming hit and a breath of fresh air for the Western; a genre which at times can feel as dry and dusty as the ground on which the West was built. Jeymes Samuel has given new notoriety to the figures found in this film – no small feat for his first feature – and it is already so exciting to consider the future that this bold new filmmaker has to come.