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.

River of Teeth, by Sarah Gailey

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Dang, that cover is gorgeous.

I just realized that I never wrote anything about River of Teeth here.

River of Teeth is a delight. It is compelling, it is exceedingly evocative, and it cemented my tremendous respect for Sarah Gailey. That respect isn’t simply for Gailey’s fabulous what-if—though a heist western about queer hippo-riding cowboys in the swamps of Louisiana wins you lots of points in my book—no, my respect is for Gailey’s obdurate embrace of optimism, hope, and upbeat tone despite nearly every genre expectation insisting otherwise. When I read River of Teeth, I couldn’t recall the last time I’d read a book so fraught with dire struggle, and with emotional conflict, yet which somehow rose above despondency and grimdark. It’s still hard to come up with such titles, but this is one of them.

Gailey’s characters are capable, but merely mortal. They face the impossible. And somehow they never lose heart.

I think it says something that I inhaled River of Teeth, and then immediately inhaled the sequel, and only ever felt better for having done so.

River of Teeth is a small thing, and it’s a marvel that there is so much inside it. I strongly recommend both it and its sequel Taste of Marrow. If you like well-grounded weird historical what-ifs, or westerns, or heists, or stories which adamantly refuse to kill their queers and which hold tight to hope with both hands… this story is for you. If you just want a good time, this story is for you.

Please, go read the book.

DIE, and other RPG development

I’ve been lucky to be part of several different people’s thoughts about RPGs in the past month.

At the beginning of April I was fortunate enough to playtest Kieron Gillen’s DIE RPG, which was Continue reading

Flash Fiction: Hot Mess

I started writing a piece last week, and now I’ve finished it.  Or, well, I have a new first draft that tells the story I wanted to tell.  That’s usually what I mean by finished, here.  This piece is in the same setting as Trouble Close Behind and Bloody Expanse, though it’s a bit different.  This one was inspired by Chuck Wendig’s X Meets Y Horror prompt.  Read on past the break!

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“Flash Fiction” In Progress

This is a little piece that I’m writing for Chuck Wendig’s most recent challenge, an X meets Y horror story.  I, of course, got Psycho meets The Muppets.  We’ll see.  I wanted to get some of it done for you today, which is why there’s any post at all, but now I need to go back to doing my actual homework.  You might recognize the setting from Trouble Close Behind and Bloody Expanse.  Enjoy!

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Flash Fiction: Bloody Expanse

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Not exactly how I imagine Hobb, but Isom Dart is close enough.

Chuck Wendig’s flash fiction prompt this week involved a randomly generated title and a 1500 word story, which led to what you can see above and below.  I’m not sure exactly what caused that to make me think of what follows, but it felt about right.  Ideas I passed over in favor of this one include: medical drama, massacre, way more murder… etc.  I think I like this one better, as it’s an indirect sequel to my piece Trouble Close Behind from January 22nd.  Enjoy. Continue reading

Flash Fiction: Night in the Canyon (part 2 of 4)

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I picked up the beginning of this piece, titled “The Sheriff, the Priest, and the Killer,” over at ROKTyping as part 1 for Chuck Wendig’s 4-part flash fiction challenge.  I had a hard time choosing, but this’ll be my contribution to part 2 of Chuck Wendig’s 4-part challenge.

I was a little confused about our dramatis personae, but I think I’ve got it down as follows: there’s Sheriff Cairns, Billy and Sam O’Connel, and two men named Johnny and Kurt.  There’s also a character named Rusty (who was dead, last we knew); the inhuman murderer Matt Quinn; an as yet unnamed priest; and an as yet unnamed boy with a toothy, too-wide smile.  There may have been some counting issues, since the priest only references 5 people being present, but I think we can ignore that.  Enjoy!

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The sun rolled down behind the edge of the cliffs, limning the top of the canyon in light for a moment before it disappeared completely.  The deep gulch was suddenly too dark, but everyone could still see the too-wide smile of the freak that rode alongside the padre. Continue reading