How The Harder They Fall subverts more than one awful Western trope

·5-min read
Photo credit: Netflix
Photo credit: Netflix

Over the last few years, the Western as a genre has been revised and reconsidered, from Tarantino's alternate history in Django Unchained to the horror-tinged Bone Tomahawk. Jeymes Samuel's The Harder They Fall continues this tradition of taking the building blocks of the Western and making them feel relevant to a contemporary audience.

The film flirts with the idea of history itself in its opening title card: "While the events of this story are fictional… These. People. Existed." By foregrounding the lives and stories of Black characters, The Harder They Fall makes it clear from the beginning that the traditional image of the Western – one that's almost exclusively white – is something that it wants to challenge.

One of the most visually interesting, hilarious and thematically rich sequences in the film takes place in the White Town, when Nat Love (Jonathan Majors), robs a bank in order to get ransom money to save the woman he loves from Rufus Black (Idris Elba). As the title suggests, the town is white not just when it comes to the race of the population, but also the colour of the buildings and landscape around it – everything there is white.

Photo credit: Netflix
Photo credit: Netflix

The starkness of the White Town highlights not only the energy and variety of the aesthetics in The Harder They Fall itself, but also the limitations that come from looking at Westerns exclusively through a white lens, making it the perfect setting for the film to showcase one of its most interesting and subversive characters.

When Nat goes to the White Town, he brings Cuffee (Danielle Deadwyler) with him. Cuffee takes the revisionist Western in a new, more queer direction: they read as being, in one form or another, trans.

The Harder They Fall draws heavily on costume design as ways to explore the gender of its characters, from the classic cowboy aesthetic shared by Nat, Rufus and Cuffee, to the elaborate dresses worn by Stagecoach Mary and (sometimes) Trudy Smith (Zazie Beetz and Regina King). From the first time Cuffee is introduced working a gun and coat check at Stagecoach Mary's show it's clear that they're different from the other characters.

Photo credit: Netflix
Photo credit: Netflix

The importance of costume design in both defining and challenging the idea of gender in The Harder They Fall is revealed in both the build-up to the White Town robbery and the robbery itself. In a move that feels refreshing, the film doesn't bring in contemporary language as a way to define Cuffee but simply lets their identity speak for itself, presenting Cuffee in a way that reads as trans to the audience.

Before the White Town robbery, Cuffee changes into the elaborate dress that they need to wear, because presenting in a more femme way allows them to enter the town with Nat while creating less suspicion. The camera never lingers on Cuffee while they change, never makes a point to stare at their body. As they do get changed, only one member of the gang – the hot-headed Jim Beckworth (RJ Tyler) – is surprised by Cuffee's body.

Jim is different to everyone else around him. Obsessed with quickdraws, gun fights at high noon and the myths that surround infamous outlaws, he feels like the character who would be most at home in a traditional Western. The lack of surprise from anyone else in the gang makes it clear what kind of Western this is, by treating the "reveal" of Cuffee's body as a non-event.

Photo credit: Netflix
Photo credit: Netflix

It isn't presented as a gotcha moment, or a way to shock the audience – a trope that goes back through decades of cinema, from horror films like Sleepaway Camp to The Crying Game – but instead as a breath of fresh air, a way of showing you don't need modern settings or language in order to bring contemporary approaches to the representation of gender in the film.

When they go to the White Town, Cuffee is clearly out of their element in the dress. Still, it's never presented in a way that's over the top, but through small details that highlight the difference between Cuffee in their normal clothes as opposed to Cuffee in a dress.

It's in the hesitancy with which they move, the way they struggle on horseback in a way that they haven't prior to this. While there might be the temptation to oversimplify and simply define Cuffee as a "tomboy", the White Town sequence makes it clear that their gender identity is much more complicated than that.

Photo credit: Netflix
Photo credit: Netflix

While Cuffee's identity isn't explicitly defined, it doesn't need to be. The Harder They Fall approaches representation in a way that's refreshing for showing how Cuffee moves through the world – the way they dress compared to the women, the way they carry themselves compared to the men – without spelling out what that means. Instead, audiences and characters simply understand.

The Harder They Fall is cognisant of the restraints of the point in history in which it takes place before specific language existed. What it does brilliantly is takes this historical backdrop and revitalise it for contemporary audiences.

The revisionist Western often exists in a way that highlights the violence of the era. And while The Harder They Fall is more than happy to showcase that in a way that's at once brutal and thrilling, where it triumphs is by showing a version of the Old West that isn't all that old. Opening with the idea that these people existed allows a character like Cuffee to highlight something important about queer history: that we've always been here.

The Harder They Fall is now available to stream on Netflix

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