Being on set with the likes of Regina King and Idris Elba to bring to life Netflix’s biggest picture of the year—which counts Jay Z as one of its producers—sounds like a rousing good time to me. But for Edi Gathegi, one of the stars of the newly released western The Harder They Fall, the experience filming the movie was about more than trying to entertain audiences. It was about finding a meaningful way to educate them on figures of our nation’s history that’ve been intentionally overlooked.
“We had a lot of fun, but the fun is not to be confused with fun fun,” Gathegi tells ESSENCE of working on the film in which he plays the Texas-bred cowboy Bill Picket. “It was fun to commit ourselves to the mission and the mission was real. These people lived out here in this time and it was a harsh world. It was the wild west and it was called the wild west for a reason.”
While the plot of the movie, crafted by Jeymes Samuel, who also directed and produced the project, is entirely fictional, the individuals whom the characters are based on are not. As such, the actors in the movie, from Zazie Beetz who stars as Stagecoach Mary to LaKeith Stanfield who plays the infamous Cherokee Bill, had real-life historical accounts to look to when shaping their portrayals. Gathegi was no different.
“One of the things that shocked me is the way Bill Pickett died in real life,” he shares when discussing his research for the part. “He died because he was kicked in the head by a horse, which reminds you how powerful these animals are. It makes you think about how hard it must’ve been to break horses which is a job a lot of Black ex-slaves had.”
The Harder They Fall is meant to capture the period of the 19th-century American West which commenced just at the time slavery was coming to an end across the United States. “They went from toiling in the fields and creating American agriculture and now they’re tasked with the hard job of breaking horses to do those cattle drives up through Texas and into Missouri and that was incredibly difficult but what we did it because that was the hard job and they gave it to us,” Gathegi continued.
What was given was also taken away by the omission of Black cowboys from mainstream depictions of the wild west in books, TV, and films—a common narrative when it comes to the history of African descendants in this country. Gathegi doesn’t hesitate to point out the intentionality of tales about Buffalo Bill and Annie Oakley being passed down for centuries while the names of Black members of law enforcement like Bass Reeves and Wiley Escoe largely go unrecognized.
“Stories of our exploit started to travel and become popular and famous, then white writers hear about those stories and they write about them and make them white and they created literature with white cowboy heroes and started making films with characters that were white cowboy heroes and that was the beginning of the erasure,” he explains. “The genre was created erasing us.”
Samuel’s film is the first step in making sure the existence of Black cowboys is not only acknowledged but remembered. Watch our full interview with Edi Gathegi as he details more of his experience working on the film in the video above.
The Harder They Fall is now streaming on Netflix.