The 21st century is the age of movies. And the 20th century was no slouch, that was when the Garvey era arrived with all its street ceremony and Black daring. Put another way, between the Civil War and the so-called Roaring Twenties (after all, establishment America was hardly ready to celebrate brother Garvey, hence the Negro Renaissance is what the powers that be conceded).
Any hoo, most school textbooks completely ignored Black existence in the period between the Civil War and World War I, sliding right on up to the celebrated so-called Jazz Age. But what is left out is not surprising: us! We were seldom acknowledged.
Racism left the average school child completely ignorant of the first great migration. No, not the one where millions of southern Black folk de-camped for northern Metropoli. That was an important population shift but that actually occurred a bunch of years after the massive “westward ho” movement of Jah people; as well as the simultaneous great migration of Confederate soldiers, their families, and fellow travelers.
Of course I saw Gunsmoke, the Rifleman, and others of that ilk, but again, it never ever was impressed on me that media celebrated heroes were actually former Confederate soldiers. The “Wild West” was populated, post-Civil War, by literally tens of thousands of folk headed west with the active support of the federal government which gave away land rights–not to Native Americans, seldom to the formerly enslaved, but in a significant percentage to the former enemies of America. People who had actually picked up guns and fought against this country. (Many of them are still doing that–i.e. Kyle Rittenhouse is not an abnormality.) Here is where the story gets really tricky.
I had heard of the Buffalo Soldiers when I was a youngster, but it was not until my college and army years that I really understood who and what the “Exodusters” were, i.e. how Black people got to places such as Kansas and Omaha, Nebraska, Malcolm’s home town.
Internet personality MoeDotJ offers excellent details on the life of the historic figures on which the movie is based. His series is a significant expose of the facts behind the cinematic presentations of: (in alphabetical order) Cherokee Bill, Rufus Buck, Nat Love, Stage Coach Mary, Bill Picket, Bass Reeves, Gertrude Trudy Smith, and Cathay “Cuffie” Williams.
That’s the historic gist of the time period in which The Harder They Fall takes place. The hit Netflix movie brings a slice of this history to life, however, in the interest of entertainment, historic figures are thrown together, most of whom never met each other, and some of whom did not even exist in the same time period.
Although most of today’s viewers are not aware, this movie is not the first Black western. There was Posse, Thomasine and Bushrod, and can’t overlook Buck and The Preacher, just to name three of the small group of films that focused on Blacks in the Wild West. Plus, it is important to point out that those movies were produced in the seventies, a period of massive activism.
Perhaps, what is most surprising is that this movie was written, produced and scored by an Englishman, Jeymes Samuel, and also stars another Englishman, with whom he grew up in London, Idris Elba. Although, reared in the USA but born in Berlin of mixed parentage (father German, mother African American), Zazie Beetz is one of the featured female leads in the movie. Westerns are the most quintessential American genre of movies and yet this movie stars the work of internationally born principals.
Moreover, the movie’s soundtrack really shines. Throughout music and sounds are employed not simply as background, but also as exposition, cueing us on the meaning of what we are seeing. Towards the end of the movie, during the climatic fight scene between the female leads, all of sudden Fela Kuti bursts forth and it works so well even though I was watching scenes from a much earlier era while hearing an icon from a more contemporary era, I found the mix surprisingly appropriate. The combination of both sight and sound is both innovative and simulating.
This movie proves that the Black experience is not ipso facto simply a product of American exceptionalism. As much as many of us claim or assume that America is the pinnacle of human civilization, that’s not the reality.
The Harder They Fall confirms that you don’t have to be an American to make a great western and you don’t have to be a pan-Africanist to appreciate and be moved by Black history.