Yesterday, The Harder They Fall was released on Netflix and in theaters worldwide, giving audiences a glimpse at a reality they’ve likely never seen before or heard of. Black men and women on horseback, living in the west in control of their destiny is the image Jeymes Samuel offers on screen with a star-studded cast that places many real-life historical figures in a fictional story full of action, comedy and, most important, agency.
A lover of Westerns, Samuel carried around the idea for this project for more than a decade, attaching some of the cast’s stars like Idris Elba and Edi Gathegi to it for just as long. Here, the writer, director and producer who also scored the soundtrack to the film talks about not compromising on his vision to make this movie, not choosing actors based on their physical appearance and why making a period piece isn’t a license to call Black people the N-word.
ESSENCE: How easy or difficult was getting this project green-lit and how does it feel to see it come to fruition?
Jeymes Samuel: Well, I suppose it was super hard getting it green-lit because I’ve been putting The Harder They Fall together for years. So, on one hand, it was super hard, but on the flip side of it, I’m a Black guy from the ‘hood. I’ve been through much worse. So putting this movie together doesn’t compare to the hardships we all experience growing up in an environment with oppression and brutality and all of the things we go through all across the world.
I grew up in a place called Mozart Estate, which is one of the ‘hoods in the UK. Just navigating your way through there and still coming out with your individual identity is really hard. So the hardships of that don’t really compare to anything else. Putting a movie together, even if it takes years, it’s kind of easy in comparison. It’s easier than having to endure all the abuse you get from watching movies where you’re misrepresented or not represented at all. You know what I mean?
Seeing it come to life is amazing. This movie should not exist. It’s what I call a barbershop conversation. It’s like the man cutting the hair going, “Man, you know what they need to do? They need to make a movie where this person’s in it, that person’s in it.” It’s an all-Black Western. No N-words. Even in the teaser, no one’s calling us the N-word. There’s no subservience. There’s strong women with no bosses.
Is that how you came up with the concept? Were you just at the house one day thinking, Hmm. What if we had this Western?
SAMUEL: Well, I love film. I’m addicted to film. I’ve been shooting short films and music videos since I was a child, and Westerns were my favorite genre. I love them, even the ones where we’re misrepresented. So to just grow up looking for yourself, for your image, or looking for images of your sisters in a Western and not seeing them, as I got older, I would just do more and more research and find all of these real characters.
The characters in The Harder They Fall are actual, real characters. It’s not a biopic, but they’re all real characters that really existed. So you could watch it and then go and research those characters. So I wrote a script where I assembled all of the superheroes and supervillains like The Avengers. I put them in one space and one time so after The Harder They Fall no one can ever say we didn’t exist in the Old West in cinema or in real life.
Speaking of the cast, so many of the actors I spoke with said you told them they were in this film without them even having to audition.
SAMUEL: You know what it was? I wasn’t necessarily going on physical appearance. Idris Elba plays a character called Rufus Buck. The real Rufus Buck was kind of fair skin and got executed at 18 years old. The real Cherokee Bill could pass for white. He had Black in him and Native American. The real Nat Love didn’t know the real Jim Beckwourth. So I wasn’t looking for physical likenesses. What I was looking for is just more, I would suppose, swagger in this particular story I’m telling. For instance, when we first meet Stagecoach Mary, she sings. The real Stagecoach Mary wasn’t no singer. It was just pure swagger and style. The real Nat Love looked nothing like Jonathan Majors. It was more just looking for those people that carry the essence of this particular story that I was telling.
When you speak to filmmakers and directors, a lot of times the movie will be exciting but the person talking about it isn’t as excited about the movie. Then there’s me. I’m super excited about The Harder They Fall. I didn’t compromise in one area with that vision. Everything that’s in my brain I had to put on the screen.
That’s quite a statement to say you didn’t have to compromise.
I think that’s really important with art, with your vision. I believe in just assembling the team that all have the same vision. When you do that then everything kind of falls into place. Then Regina King can go and rescue Idris Elba from a train. You know what I mean?
Yes, I love that scene.
“We ain’t no nincompoop.” Let the record reflect. Just because it’s a period piece stop calling us n-ggas. It doesn’t give you license to call us n-ggas 100 times. Just because the story takes place in the 1800s shouldn’t give you license to make women subservient. When Nat Love says to Trudy Smith, “Where’s your boss?” She goes, “Boss?” When Nat Love says to Stagecoach Mary, “What in my character makes you think I’d allow that?” She goes, “I wasn’t asking for your permission.” Ain’t no subservience in this movie. We’re kings and queens on horseback.
I grew up being dark skinned and African so I never played into complexionism, right? When I was growing up, it was made to be a bad thing but I wore it like a badge of honor as a child. The darker you are the more insults you get. I used to think to myself, “Wow, man. Hollywood done a hell of a thing with our community, with Black people, and affecting the way we view ourselves.” I’ll never play into complexionism.
The music in the film really moves the story forward and is a mix of sounds from across the diaspora. Can you talk about mixing different genres together for this soundtrack?
I composed the entire score and wrote and produced all the songs on the soundtrack. The music is a huge component of The Harder They Fall because, historically, I’ve always categorized Westerns by the type of music that plays in them. Back in the old days it was a fast-strum, guitar-type Western, then they moved on to the big orchestral type, then they moved on to the Italian’s installments in the Old West. Then we had Ennio Morricone’s score, that began what was known as Spaghetti Westerns. So I wanted to do something that would have its own signature.
Black people in the Old West, we never been in the Old West in full-Technicolor swag. Not like this. Obviously, there’s been portrayals of Black people in Old Western cinema before, but not like this. So without retreading any other musical tropes, I needed to make a statement, musically. I realized that Dub, which I grew up on—my parents are West Indian and African—so Dub and Dancehall and all that, even West African music, like Fela, is very cowboy in its aesthetic. So I got Barrington Levy to sing on the actual score. Then I called the Fisk Jubilee Singers from Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, established in 1866. They were the first singers to tour with the old Negro Spirituals around the world in 1871, literally 150 years ago.
It’s all African expression. The Black man and woman of America is literally walking, talking and breathing superheroes. We all go through racism all over the world, but, in America, they go through it time and time and time again on such a brutal scale and they still manage to turn out a Oprah Winfrey, still manage to turn out a Jay Z, still manage to turn out all of these people that would take a bad environment and turn it into heaven with what they’ve gone through because we’re all African. It’s all African expression. Light skin, dark skin, beige, jet black. We’re all African, whether it’s the Fisk Jubilee Singers, or Barrington Levy, or Fela, we are one. We are one. We are one. We’re one. The Harder They Fall, for me, just brings everyone together.