‘The Harder They Fall’: 6 Other Films to Watch If You Liked Netflix’s Black Western
While audiences wait to see what the hype around “The Harder They Fall” might lead to, here are a handful of Black westerns worth a look right now.
Poitier effectively remedied this when he decided to make his directorial debut with “Buck and the Preacher” (1972), in which he also co-starred with long-time pal Harry Belafonte, who also produced the film.
Additionally, any conversation about Black Westerns wouldn’t be complete without a mention of blaxploitation-heavy Fred Williamson’s body of work, which included a bevy of salutes to the genre, including titles like
“The Legend of N*gger Charley” (1972),
“The Soul of N*gger Charley” (1973),
“Boss N*gger” (1974), “Joshua” (1976),
“Take a Hard Ride” (1975),
“Adiós Amigo” (1975), and others.
His use of the so-called “N-word” in the titles of a few of these films may be jarring at first, but it was an intentionallly defiant act by the burly actor/writer/director and former NFL star, whose brand of on- and off-screen machismo were mostly unmatched at the time. His pal Jim Brown, also a former NFL star turned actor with a few Westerns on his resume, was his main competition.
And even “Shaft” himself, Richard Roundtree, dabbled in the genre for a spell, starring in “Charley-One-Eye” (1973), two years after his breakout role as “the Black private dick that’s a sex machine to all the chicks.”
And while Westerns aren’t produced as frequently as they once were, there have been signs of improved recognition of the African American presence in the Old West, with many finding inspiration in the narrative of the African American regiments —
AKA Buffalo Soldiers — that fought in the mid- to late 1800s, protecting Western territories at the end of the Civil War. Mario Van Peebles’ “Posse” (1993) and Danny Glover in “Buffalo Soldiers” (1997) are the most prominent.
More recently, Jamie Foxx and Samuel L. Jackson received top billing in “Django Unchained” (2012) and “The Hateful Eight” (2015), while in the 2016 remake, Denzel Washington led “The Magnificent Seven.”
Samuel’s “The Harder They Fall” does acknowledge history by featuring real-life legendary Black men and women of the Old West. Although a fictional film, its characters are based on real cowboys, lawmen, and outlaws of the 19th century.
The opening of the movie reminds audiences of this fact. They include Bill Pickett, a real-life cowboy, who starred in the first Black Western, the silent five-reeler “The Bull Dogger,” in 1921. In “The Harder They Fall,” Pickett is played by Edi Gathegi.
Stories like that of Pickett’s, as well as legendary lawman Bass Reeves (inspiration for The Lone Ranger) have been crying out for big budget Hollywood studio treatment, and there has been the occasional mention, especially of Reeves, who is played by Delroy Lindo in “The Harder They Fall.”
But these irregular instances have tended to be more akin to sidebars (for example, Reeves is mentioned in three episodes of HBO’s “Watchmen,” portrayed by Jamal Akakpo) in contrast to the way the lives of white Western legends like Wyatt Earp and Billy the Kid have been immortalized in American mythology via a variety of film appearances that tell their respective stories.
It’s possible that “The Harder They Fall” might force Hollywood to restore the real Black cowboy to their rightful place in Western lore. There’s certainly no shortage of real-life source material to build on. Enterprising screenwriters could take their pick of the larger-than-life characters in Samuel’s Netflix movie, whose individual stories could carry entire films or episodic television series.
While audiences wait to see what the pomp and circumstance around “The Harder They Fall” might lead to, here are a handful of Black Westerns worth a look right now.
This is by no means an exhaustive list (including every film mentioned in this brief intro), nor even films that are highly recommended; but, as the cliched saying goes, for an understanding and appreciation of the present and anticipation the future, look to the past.
Photo: Everett Collection1.“Sergeant Rutledge” (1960)
John Ford was in his late sixties and nearing the end of a long, illustrious career, seeming to have mellowed, discovering and exploring a more humanist side to himself as an artist.
The result was a few films in which he seemed to be making up for his distorted portrayals of people of color in previous films, maybe most exemplified in “Sergeant Rutledge,” a remarkably progressive film for its period.
In it, the burly Woody Strode stars as a Black U.S. Calvary sergeant who is accused of raping and murdering a white woman and her father, his superior officer. Needless to say, the crime sets the townspeople aflame with hatred, as a lynch mob assembles to take matters into their own hands. After Rutledge attempts to follow evidence that could free him, he’s eventually taken in by his own men to face trial.The film could also be classified as a courtroom drama, wherein much of the action is told mainly in a series of flashbacks in which information is revealed in bits, leaving audiences guessing as to Rutledge’s guilt or innocence.
There’s no sentimentality here, which should be appreciated for a film of its ilk. Strode (a legendary athlete at UCLA as a decathlete and football star, who died in 1994) is perfectly cast in a rare lead role and gives a powerful performance.