Thursday, November 04, 2021

All's Right on the Western Front

I've never been big on Westerns. Although, as with Musicals, there are singular and strange exceptions that prove the rule -- I can watch Catherine Denueve stare out an umbrella shop window with tears in her eyes as I can watch Montgomery Clift compare pistols with John Ireland til the sun goes down, yeehaw lil' doggy. I grew up with a father who loved Westerns, John Wayne shit everywhere, and, as with sports, a rejection of all things father-related seems to have worked its way into the foundations of my being. I understand you're not my therapist and this is a lot of information, but it seems important to gateway my review of the giddying and gleeful The Harder They Fall in such a manner, because I want you to know when I tell you I loved it that this carries some weight.

So I loved it. It's not just the fact that writer-director Jeymes Samuel has fore-fronted a cast that looks nothing like your typical Western cast of yore -- there are plenty of pink-skinned second-players but the film stars in all its leading roles black faces, gorgeous black faces, belonging to Idris Elba, Regina King, Lakeith Stanfield, Zazie Beetz, and my king Jonathan Majors. It's not just that I am looking at these people doing things I haven't been given the chance to see them do before that livens up the proceedings -- but that don't hurt. Like a zap from the eyeball straight to the funny bone -- that's how science works, right -- there's just a thrill, keen and electric, in the singularity of it. A freshness that can't be ignored. We want our meals fresh -- why not our movies, dagnabit?

There have of course been Black Westerns before. When I was in high school Mario Van Peebles' film Posse came out; and while it's a stretch to call it a "Black Western" one of my father's favorites was indeed Mel Brooks' obscene farce Blazing Saddles, which explicitly dealt with the racism of the genre with the great Cleavon Little as its slapsticky leading man. But those movies (along with even just Django Unchained even more recently) were About Racism, full stop. I won't say the characters stayed skin deep, but the movies could only see their skin when it came to the stories they could tell. The black cowboys and Buffalo Soldiers were set against all manner of ugly racists spouting racist bullshit, and that's all they got.

In the opening scene of The Harder They Fall some white dude starts to say a word that begins with the letter "N" and Regina King shoots him dead before he can get past the syllable, making a joke that she doesn't care where he was going with it from there -- an "N" is too much already. And the movie takes that attitude onward -- this story ain't about that shit, and it allows its black characters to become so very much more. They're bad bad bad guy villains, they're romantic leads and avengers, they're sidekicks and ol' stalwarts and all the Western tropes we've seen a million times before. Just black. It's not that racism isn't there; it's just that these people have lives and adventures to lead that have nothing to do with it. And I'll be good goddamned if that doesn't make the picture just feel alive from someplace deep within it, with the blood coursing up and out from there.

The cast feels it too, and they sing appropriately -- these are some of the most relaxed movie star turns i've seen from this stable of fine movie stars, everybody leaning into aspects of themselves they've never quite gotten to muss with while also complimenting all of our favorite bits about them. (Lakeith as a sad quiet killing machine and Regina King as a no-nonsense terror are of particular delight.) And you better believe me when I tell you the last act of this movie's a trip, a culmination of double and triple-crosses that takes the usual Western Town shoot-out and makes it hit notes of absolute action fantastic pleasure. You really care about these folks by the time the bloodbath starts washing down the main street's thoroughfare, and so every zing of a bullet stings deep. And I'll be damned if I'm not crying to be signed up for ten more of these movies now.

The Harder They Fall is streaming on Netflix right now! Go'n git!


billybil said...

One of your better reviews. It really zings (and makes me really want to see this movie!) Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Jonathan. Majors. Jonathan Majors riding a horse! Jonathan majors can get it…all of it… every day… and twice on Sundays!