The Harder They Fall (2021)

Profoundly Western: part tragedy, part drama, and all about revenge and camaraderie and fighting to make a place in the world.

I can’t write about this movie without writing about Wild Wild West (the 1999 Will Smith film, not the midcentury TV show that gave rise to that movie). I also have to talk about the larger context of Westerns. And I ought to talk about American history post-Civil War, and how that’s been depicted in Hollywood. That deserves a deeper look, but I’ll try to keep it brief: I’m not ready to write an essay right now.

The Harder They Fall fits oddly well with Wild Wild West. This isn’t because they feel the same, though they are both set in the American West. Instead, it’s because of what they both do that few other movies have done.

Both movies break the Hollywood mould. Both do something unusual, especially for movies set (roughly) during Reconstruction; they feature black protagonists whose fundamental struggles are not about slavery.

Most movies set during or around that time prominently feature white protagonists. When there are Confederates, they’re often empathized with. When the protagonists are black, their dramatic struggle nearly always centers around slavery (their own, a loved one’s, etc.). And Westerns, as a subset of those movies, rarely feature people of color as anything other than The Other. ‘Western’ stories are nearly always “of the white people, by the white people, for the white people.” Given the fact that there were so many non-white people present in the land these stories are told about, and during the time when those stories are set, that’s a pretty egregious rewriting of history.

For a long time, Wild Wild West was the only movie I could point to that didn’t do that.

For all of its troublesome pieces (and there are many), Wild Wild West refused to toe that revisionist-history line. The film is set during Reconstruction, and its central protagonist is black and isn’t a slave. In fact, instead of centering his dramatic struggle around escaping enslavement (his own, or someone else’s), his fundamental duty is to hunt down Confederate terrorists still operating in the US post-war (very historical, unlike the giant spider-mecha). Relatedly, and most importantly, the movie never caters to the fantasy of the Lost Cause and the mythology of the Good Confederate that went along with it; unlike so many other movies set in this time period, Wild Wild West never defends the Confederacy or any of the racists who supported it. In fact, the villain is an unrepentant Confederate obsessed with reversing the outcome of the Civil War. There are a few white people on the hero’s side, but they’re in supporting roles and none of them are supposed to be reformed secessionists.

The Harder They Fall is very different. It’s not steampunk alternate history. It’s far less fantastical. It does do some fun things with visual design, sets, and costumes that may not be purely historically accurate, and it anachronistically combines several real historical people in one time, place, and story… but it’s down to earth. But like Wild Wild West, it features a black protagonist whose dramatic struggle doesn’t focus on slavery.

Actually, it goes way further than that. There isn’t a single main white character in the movie (let alone the redeemable Confederate that has long been a staple of Hollywood fare). The entire central cast is made up of people of color, just like the vast majority of the extras. On that front, The Harder They Fall blows Wild Wild West out of the water.

It even hews more closely to the expectations of the genre. Thematically, this story is profoundly Western: part tragedy, part drama, it’s all about revenge and camaraderie and fighting to make a place in the world. Actually, it reminds me a good deal of the Spaghetti Westerns, with its rich visual language and cinematography, with its omnipresent and evocative soundtrack, and with its violence. Honestly, it’s pretty brutal in places… it’s not quite Tarantino-esque, though the movie arguably references Django Unchained early on when someone shoots a white person before they can finish possibly saying the n-word.

So.

I don’t know if I can say just how happy I am to find another movie that does this. We need to end our cultural obsession with protecting the harmful mythology of the Lost Cause, and with casting Confederates as tragic noble knights instead of violently reactionary antidemocratic racists. This movie pushes us in that direction. We need more stories about people who aren’t white, and those stories should make space for them to be something more than slaves. This movie offers exactly that. I enjoy The Harder They Fall all the more for the way in which it gives these characters space to be people. It doesn’t offer a cure for every ailment, just… complicated people with their violent, complicated lives.

If you don’t like Westerns, or can’t handle violence with occasional bits of gruesomeness, I suggest you appreciate this movie from a distance. Otherwise, have at. It’s good.

Huh. I got so wrapped up in talking about bigger, structural things, I forgot to mention that I just like this movie as a movie. The cast is lots of fun, the story delivers what I want, there are twists that I enjoy… it’s a good movie. It’s a good Western. And it’s even better for all the other things I mentioned above.