‘The Harder They Fall’ Director Jeymes Samuel on Remixing Revisionist History: "These. People. Existed"

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

Jeymes Samuel knows how to make an entrance. This much is clear in the opening minutes of his debut feature film, They Harder They Fall, in which a tense stand-off erupts into violence, before a new Jay Z and Kid Cudi track comes galloping in. It is also evident in speaking to the 42-year-old director, who joins our Zoom call from Los Angeles belting out a song from The Wizard of Oz, and doesn't let up for two full verses.

In Samuel's modern western, an all-Black ensemble cast that includes Idris Elba, Regina King, LaKeith Stanfield, Jonathan Majors, Zazie Beetz, and many more, make up two gangs of adversaries who do gruesome battle across dusty frontier towns. The film follows outlaw Nat Love (Majors), who discovers that his nemesis Rufus Buck (Elba) is being released from prison, and reunites his gang to track him down. In its classic revenge plot it nods to some conventions of the genre, but in its exploration of long–marginalised voices and tongue-in-cheek sense of humour, it turns the western on its head.

Samuel grew up in west London, his love for cowboy films forged by seeing serials like Bonanza playing on the TV in his parent's living room. “The frustrating thing was the vantage point they were shown through,” he says. “If you were a woman you were subservient in some way, and if you were of any ethnicity other than white you were treated as less than human. I still love those movies, [but] everything we learnt about westerns was skewed.”

At the start of The Harder They Fall is a disclaimer which clears up the question of whether the film is a true story, a reminder that, as Samuel repeats, “While the events in this story are fictional. These. People. Existed.” As such the ragtag gangs in the film are based on real figures from the Old West who he became obsessed with researching in order to uncover the stories that had been scrubbed from cinema. “I came across all these characters like Stagecoach Mary, Deadwood Dick, Bass Reeves, who was the inspiration for the real Lone Ranger, and I thought, ‘How come I’ve never learnt about these people?' We’ve been given a remix of the Old West.”

Photo credit: Netflix
Photo credit: Netflix

Samuel's background in music – working with artists such as Mos Def, Gorillaz and Kid Cudi, under his music alias, The Bullitts – gave him valuable connections for making The Harder They Fall. He and his Longstanding friend Elba had discussed making the film as far back as 15 years ago, and Jay Z was on board as an executive producer before there was even a script. Samuel knows Shawn Carter from producing artists signed to his label like Jay Electronica, and also directed the music videos for his 4:44 album. “People always imagine Jay Z being involved in the music side and he was,” Samuel says. “But it was more in the film side. He's a cinephile, and he knew his boy Jeymes Samuel held the music side down!”

Carter could be seen in videos from the after-party of the LA premiere of the film – a saloon party which Samuel throws each year, where you can find unlikely scenes such as Al Pacino and Wesley Snipes on the conga drums – where his brother, the musician Seal, was coerced into a rendition of ‘Kiss from a Rose.’

Samuel's all-star cast didn't need too much convincing to join his ultra-violent Black cowboy revenge flick, though his pitch to Regina King is worth retelling. “She had just won an Academy Award, she wasn’t going to do this movie with a first time filmmaker,” Samuel recalls.“I knew I had like ten seconds to make my mark in that conversation, and when she answered her FaceTime I was like, 'PEACE to the Black QUEEN Regina King, in the building! What’s cracking!', and the rest is history. She rode with us all the way till the wheels fell off.”

While The Harder They Fall features an almost entirely Black cast, Samuel is reticent of reading the film as being about race. “I’m not adverse to topics of race, I just think people have to be wary of how they do it and the images they put forward,” he says. “If I’m a Black storyteller and I’m not talking about racism, racism, racism, then another filmmaker doesn’t have to do it.”

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

Instead he turns our expectations of racial themes on their head. In one scene we visit Maysville, described fearfully as a "white town" by one of Nat Love's gang, only to discover the town is literally painted white. Another similar joke with the audience involves the driver of a train being shot dead by Regina King's character for starting to say the N-word, only for the assailant's friend to suggest he might have been calling them nincompoops. "We ain't no nincompoops either," King replies coolly.

Before The Harder They Fall Samuel directed another western, a short called They Die by Dawn, which featured a similarly starry cast including the late Michael K. Williams and Erykah Badu. It was an experience that taught him how to "shoot from the hip" while filming on the fly. More important, though, was the wisdom he gained about working with horses. “You know you can’t film a horse solo?” he says. “There has to be another horse near the camera making him or her feel safe. It would be quiet day on set and one horse would neighhhhhh, then another horse would go neighhhhhh. I think they were saying, 'These humans are irritating'”

‘The Harder They Fall’ is on Netflix 3 November

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