A festival’s opening film has to believe in itself and this Black Western, (starring Londoner Idris Elba and directed by Kilburn-native, Jeymes Samuel), has got swagger to spare. Still, there’s more to it than badass posing.
Two gangs of outlaws are involved in a war of attrition. Genial Nat Love (the sweetly diffident Jonathan Majors) leads a group that includes saloon owner, Stagecoach Mary (Zazie Beetz), and gender fluid Cuffee (Danielle Deadwyler). Surly Rufus Buck (Elba) has Cherokee Bill (LaKeith Stanfield) and Treacherous Trudy (Regina King) on his side.
The ill-will goes way back. In a flashback, we see Buck kill Love’s devout parents. Nat is desperate to take down Buck. He also wants to propose to Mary. As he sorts out his priorities, it becomes clear that a good man is hard to find.
Samuel has always been fascinated by real-life Black pioneers and, in 2013, wove historical figures Nat Love and Stagecoach Mary into a short film, They Die By Dawn, starring the late Michael K. Williams. Samuel’s preoccupations haven’t changed. And his eye for US talent is just as sharp.
If Stanfield is reliably sensual as the untrustworthy Bill, King owns the part of Trudy. At the start of the movie, the character is all super-model grace and Danny Trejo pout. Then she gets a big scene with Mary and all icy hell breaks loose. Wow. King’s been acting since the 80s, won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her turn in If Beale Street Could Talk and recently took up directing. Any day now, I’m expecting her to find a cure for cancer. On the evidence of the last few years, there’s nothing she can’t do.
Meanwhile, Elba is stretched in the film’s emotional final scenes. He’s been touted for years as an ideal candidate to take over from Daniel Craig, as Bond. Whatever your views on that debate, Elba, like Craig, is more than just a gritty face. In fact, as the complicated Buck, he’s never been so easy to fall for.
True, some of the visuals are a tad derivative. Jokey freeze frames. Baroque blood-baths. Safe to say Samuel has seen one or three Tarantino movies. That’s no crime, of course (Guy Ritchie has been hanging onto Quentin’s coat-tails for years). Luckily, Samuel is a cool cat with the ability to do more than copy, especially when it comes to music.
He and Shawn Carter aka Jay-Z worked on the soundtrack. Instead of riffing on Morricone, they punctuate the action with reggae, afrobeat and and soul classics.
The eclectic sounds sum up a project that’s full of imaginative leaps. Here I come, sings Barrington Levy, as Samuel announces his own spectacular arrival on the scene.
The Harder They Fall is on UK release from October 22 and on Netflix from November 3. 130mins, 15