The Harder They Fall’s Antoinette Messam on what it takes to make it as a costume designer

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

“It was a very big job, right in the middle of Covid,” says Antoinette Messam, of designing the costumes for Jeymes Samuel’s blockbuster Western, The Harder They Fall. The star-studded movie – starring Idris Elba, Regina King and Zazie Beetz, and produced by Jay Z – is in many senses a traditional Western, telling the violent story of an outlaw seeking revenge when his enemy is released from prison. But, due to the ground-breaking way it presents Black cowboys, this was a unique project, and one that Messam was immensely proud to be a part of.

“I am a Jamaican Canadian, so I didn’t grow up in America, and I didn’t know that there were Black cowboys,” she tells me. “Doing the research for this film, I saw that these people existed – these towns were real, their accomplishments were real, but you never saw them in the movies.”

Messam says that she grew up watching Westerns every Saturday night with her father, who adored the genre, but was also not aware of the stories of Black cowboys, and that this part of history was being left out of the typical Hollywood portrayal.

“What is incredible to me is to be able to show my son, who is in his thirties, that representation matters. To be able to show him that not only were we in the Caribbean, in the South, but we were also in the West. We were in towns that we owned. This story of the town of Redwood in the movie is not fiction – and that is something that I hope these kids will be able to take away from it. First, it’s a Western that just so happens to have Black people in, but these Black people were actually there.”

Although the movie in no way claims to be telling a true story, the characters are based on real people who existed across history, people that Messam and Samuel spent many, many months researching.

Photo credit: DAVID LEE/NETFLIX - Netflix
Photo credit: DAVID LEE/NETFLIX - Netflix

“I had never done a Western before so it was really important for me to look at the foundation of what these people actually looked like. I had to deep dive into areas that I didn’t know anything about,” explains Messam, who wanted to understand what the world may have looked like then, and was tasked with incorporating that into Samuel’s very specific vision.

“At the end of the day, Jeymes did not want to make a dusty old cowboy movie – he wanted it to look alive, he wanted it to have swagger, for it to be fun and funky. And, believe it or not, if you look at some of my research, this wasn’t a stretch – these people had style, they dressed well. The way they wore their clothes, they made it their own.”

Photo credit: DAVID LEE/NETFLIX - Netflix
Photo credit: DAVID LEE/NETFLIX - Netflix

The task ahead of Messam was a big one. In fact, simply understanding how much work goes into a movie like this is difficult to comprehend. Once the research had been done, her job was to ensure that the characters she was creating worked within the set – “They need to tonally connect and jive, it needs to be fluid, organic and not jarring. The entire frame needs to work” – and then, the huge task of production begins.

“I've never done so many illustrations; this is the most I have ever done,” Messam says, explaining that almost every single costume we see on screen was built from scratch, and most of the ensembles had many duplicates; in some cases, there were up to six or seven multiples of each costume. Production of the wardrobe was happening across the continent – in Los Angeles, New Mexico and Toronto, all at once, and this was while the team was trying to work through a pandemic and the many difficulties that brought with it.

Photo credit: DAVID LEE/NETFLIX - Netflix
Photo credit: DAVID LEE/NETFLIX - Netflix

Of course, the magic of the movies is such that everything appears effortless; the aim is to totally transport the viewer into that world, so that they're not thinking about fittings, or sketches, or duplicate costumes, and therefore the months of intensive work that goes into putting the wardrobe together for a movie such as this may not always be obvious to those of us watching on screen. This is something that Messam stresses to anyone looking to work in the industry.

“The advice I give to the kids who are DM-ing me on a daily basis is that they should be thinking about where their resources are at the moment. Instead of reaching out to me from Wisconsin, make sure you’ve done your research at home. Everybody wants to pack a suitcase and get to Hollywood, but when you get here, you might realise that this job is not for you. You would be surprised at how many people think they want to be in this business, but once they get here and they see the hours they have to work, they quickly change their minds.”

That is not to say that Messam is not completely in love with what she does every day. Although she didn't initially set out to work in costume design, it was a path that, for her, ended up being the perfect fit.

“Fashion was my world,” she explains. “I started out as a model and then became a stylist. At one point, I started doing buying for a costume designer, and she then recommended me to work on a project, which I got. Then, all of a sudden, a whole new world opened up and I didn’t realise how much I would enjoy it. I felt like I had found my home when I was able to create characters from a page and see them come to life. I was like a kid in a candy store, jumping up and down and thinking, ‘I did that! It looks exactly as I envisioned it’ – and that excitement, that feeling, it hasn’t changed at all.”

Photo credit: DAVID LEE/NETFLIX © 2021 - Netflix
Photo credit: DAVID LEE/NETFLIX © 2021 - Netflix

Although she stepped into the film industry almost by chance, she has had to break down plenty of barriers to get to where she is today. Messam was the first Black Canadian costume designer – and she has spent much of her 30 years on set being the only person of colour. Is this changing now?

“The thing that is happening now is that people are talking about it,” Messam says of the awareness of racism on set. “I have now worked on two movies since the Black Lives Matter protests first took place, and what I find now is that there is more sensitivity. Before, I would not have necessarily spoken on what I see as unacceptable dialogue, but now I do. And now, when I’m in a town like Atlanta, I feel I can ask, ‘Why is it that I don’t have any Black crew?’ I personally am speaking up and I feel that the people around me and above me are also asking those questions. Before, we took it for granted – oh, there must be no one available – but now I ask, ‘Have you checked?’”

The Harder They Fall is in select cinemas now and on Netflix from 3 November.

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