Jeymes Samuel & co-writer Boaz Yakin both clearly revere the Western genre – it provides sturdy wooden scaffolding for their pulp fictions – & blow it apart with a wagon-load of racial justice.
THE HARDER THEY FALL had its world premiere at the opening night gala of the 65th BFI London Film Festival at the Royal Festival Hall (06 OCT 2021). The screening was preceded by an onstage Q&A with director Jeymes Samuel and members of the cast, hosted by BFI programmer Grace Barber-Plentie.
There’s an unbridled joy in seeing how efficiently THE HARDER THEY FALL dispatches so many previous portrayals of Black stories on screen. It’s not just that this is a fine film made by considerable Black talent, but by plunging into the pulpiest of fictions – and removing any need for its characters to be worthy heroes or well-behaved role models – THE HARDER THEY FALL is a movie that isn’t afraid to be impolite. There are no good guys or bad guys here, what matters is how deep your descent… In many senses it’s a much more radical Black-led genre film than the revered BLACK PANTHER and the recent CANDYMAN, because it relishes in the fact that it doesn’t need to give a fuck.
This brutal Western pits two teams of outlaws – a more accurate term than the BFI’s polite ‘cowboys’ – against each other in a battle for dominance and revenge. Introduced at the film’s World Premiere by director/co-writer/co-producer Jeymes Samuel as his very own AVENGERS ASSEMBLE, that plot dynamic is pretty much all you need to know: Black characters from across the history of the Old West are pitched together to do battle in the desert landscapes of New Mexico. Samuel and co-writer Boaz Yakin both clearly revere the Western genre – it provides sturdy wooden scaffolding for their stories and shootouts – and blow it apart with a wagon-load of racial justice that audaciously resets the genre’s reliance on racial bias and genocide denial. Whilst this is fantastical story telling, one title slide makes a point that stays with you throughout:
These. People. Existed.
THE HARDER THEY FALL is delivered with serious polish and bravado, the only reminder that this is Samuel’s debut feature is a sense that it is stylistically somewhat familiar. The presence of Tarantino’s long-term producer Lawrence Bender further suggests a strong alliance with that cannon of work. Short of banishing the N word (with a joyous joke you’ll see spoilt in the trailer…), the linguistic flourishes, blood-soaked action, and use of music to choreograph the violence will be instantly familiar.
But just when you start to settle in, you’ll realise that gender as well as race plays a much more interesting role than in your average Tarantino N-fest… There are women in this world and they are (almost) as multifaceted and nasty as the males, even if they do tend to play supporting roles. Exploring (exploiting perhaps?) female masculinities, these are all women who have muscled into their own niche in an otherwise unforgiving landscape. A final epic fight between Regina King and Zazie Beetz puts down the guns and goes at it hammer and tongs (and pitchfork and horseshoe…) to deliver one of the film’s finest action sequences and possibly its best emotional payoff (by the time of the over-written ending…).
However, it’s also possible to see this as classic male wish fulfilment in the form of an extended catfight… And I’m still in two minds about the unexpected glimpses we get of same-sex desire… One is a moment of pure comic relief as a horny young dandy realises he hasn’t fallen for another fella after all, flirting with a tired trope that trades on the idea that queerness is taboo. The other, a kiss between two different characters, doesn’t feel earned by the storytelling and thus risks being more – mere? – male wish fulfilment.
Of course, I began by writing that this film dares to be impolite, and in many ways that entirely explains these moments. But there again, throwing the door open so widely should theoretically allow everyone through, and I wonder how more truly radical THE HARDER THEY FALL could have been? And I do feel invited to test its radicalism as this is how it was introduced by co-star Idris Elba, letting his guard down in the on-stage intro with a charmingly unexpected F-bomb.
In that same intro, Jonathan Majors brilliantly – and beautifully! – responded to a question from BFI’s Grace Barber-Plentie about why he is drawn to these kind of revisionist roles. “The stories of our people are manifold” he explained, and if he and his Black co-creators have had a chance to tell some of their stories, then perhaps other marginalised peoples will have their chances too. He saw this breaking down of barriers as a process that will lead to more films creating and reflecting “a quilt of humanity” (a turn of phrase that made me sob). Following a film that so brazenly asserts an alternate view of history from the one we’ve been given, I look forward to the ensuing QPOC fan fiction that rides RJ Cyler off into the sunset with his unexpected male beau…
PS – I expect the BFI to project film flawlessly, but by choosing the Royal Festival Hall as their LFF pop-up picture palace, they have picked an unforgiving space… The visuals looked impeccable, a massive projector almost filling the control booth at the back of the stalls. But the sound was a serious problem, in turns too loud from the front/sides and lacking any clarity in the centre. This means that whilst gunshots, explosions and that stunning World music score roared, dialogue was too often muddy and in stark contrast to the crystal clear images. Thank heaven then for the familiar comfort of genre, and a plot we could navigate with our ears closed…
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