Jeymes Samuel’s revisionist western “The Harder They Fall” assembles an all-star cast of both actors and legendary Black western figures from across time for a fictional story about two rival groups, the Nat Love and the Rufus Buck gangs.
In real life, the two men likely never crossed paths. And Samuel’s blind casting process led him to choose Idris Elba for the role of Buck, an infamous outlaw who was just 18 when he was executed.
"[Buck] was biracial, he had mixed heritage,” said Samuel. “And obviously, Idris is a wicked actor. He’s many things, but he’s not 18. It’s not a biopic, so I wasn’t looking at who looks like any of those characters, because none of them do. It’s just what they embody as actors.”
The film offers rare representation for Black cowboys, frontiersmen and lawmen who have largely been written out of Hollywood’s cinematic depictions of the Old West. In actuality, at least one in four cowboys was Black. “Black cowboys were some of the very first cowboys on the cattle trails because many of them used the skills they already had from handling cows as slaves,” said Gloria Austin, co-founder of the National Multicultural Western Heritage Museum in Fort Worth.
Jeymes Samuel’s “The Harder They Fall” ends with a twist. Here, the director breaks down the surprisingly personal emotional current underlying the scene.
“Western history is like a bridge between slavery ending and the civil rights movement [beginning]. It’s empowering when people are able to see their rightful place in society and the many different avenues that were taken other than what is generally shown in movies, television and textbooks.”
Here’s a brief history of the real-life figures who inspired characters in “The Harder They Fall.”
Nat Love, played by Jonathan Majors
Nat Love (pronounced “Nate”) was born into slavery in June 1854 in Tennessee.
A skilled cowboy, Love would earn the nickname of Deadwood Dick after winning a shooting contest in Deadwood, S.D. He was also an expert at roping, herding and branding cattle and horses.
Love became a free man at the end of the Civil War and after winning a horse in a raffle, set off on his own at 15. He settled in Kansas and found work as a cowboy on the cattle trails and as a Pullman porter on the railroads. He published a memoir, “The Life and Adventures of Nat Love,” in 1907, perhaps the only full-length autobiography written by a Black cowboy. Love died in 1921 .
Rufus Buck, played by Idris Elba
Of Black and Creek Indian descent, outlaw Rufus Buck led the Rufus Buck Gang, which rose to prominence in summer 1895. That July, Buck (just 18) and his four associates went on a crime spree, preying on local white settlers, Creek Indians and Black people alike. Buck hoped to instigate an uprising to force white settlers off the land and return it to the Creeks and Cherokees. The gang killed several people, including a U.S. deputy marshal, and raped and pillaged across the Fort Smith, Ark., area before being hanged together in July 1896.
Stagecoach Mary, played by Zazie Beetz
Mary Fields was born into slavery in or around 1832, likely in Tennessee. Newly freed after the Civil War ended, she headed north and landed at a convent in Toledo, Ohio, where she found work as a groundskeeper.
In 1885, she headed to Montana and began working at a new convent, but her gruff manner constantly landed her in trouble. The “hard-drinking, quick-shooting” Fields, who had a penchant for men’s clothing and stood at an imposing 6 feet, was fired after she nearly got into a gunfight with a janitor.
In 1895, Fields was contracted by the U.S. Post Office Department to become a mail carrier, the first Black woman and just the second woman to ever do so. She was nicknamed Stagecoach Mary in acknowledgment of her ability to protect the mail from thieves and bandits. She held the position for eight years before her death in December 1914.
Writer-director Jeymes Samuel assembles an all-star cast to portray historic Black Western figures in Netflix’s ‘The Harder They Fall.’
Cherokee Bill, played by Lakeith Stanfield
Goldsby attended Native American schools in Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma) from age 7 before falling in with a rough crowd and engaging in crimes ranging from stealing horses to train and bank robberies. He killed seven to 13 people before he was apprehended and convicted of murder.
Goldsby unsuccessfully attempted to escape from jail, killing a guard in the process and earning a second murder conviction. He was hanged in 1896 at age 20. When asked if he had any last words, Goldsby said: “I came here to die, not to make a speech.”
Jim Beckwourth, played by RJ Cyler
James “Jim” Beckwourth was born into slavery in Virginia in April 1798. The son of a white man and an enslaved woman, Beckwourth was awarded his freedom by his father in 1810.
Known widely as a mountain man, Beckwourth embarked on a fur-trading expedition in 1823 and an expedition to the Rocky Mountains the following year. He took several Native American wives and lived among the Crow Indians for six years, impressing them with his athletic prowess.
In 1848 in the midst of the California gold rush, Beckwourth charted a course through the Sierras en route to California, where he befriended journalist Thomas D. Bonner. Bonner chronicled Beckwourth’s memories in a book, “The Life and Adventures of James P. Beckwourth, Mountaineer, Scout, Pioneer and Chief of the Crow Nation of Indians,” which was published in 1856.
Jonathan Majors, Idris Elba, Regina King, LaKeith Stanfield and many more star in this stylish, intensely violent exercise in genre reclamation.
Bill Pickett, played by Edi Gathegi
Born William Pickett in 1870, he began work as a ranch hand in lieu of attending the sixth grade. When he was 18, he and his brothers established the Pickett Brothers Bronco Busters and Rough Riders Assn., a horse-breaking cowboy service in Texas.
Bulldogging, which involves subduing a steer by grabbing its horns and biting its nose or bottom lip, changed the face of rodeo and allowed Pickett to travel across the U.S. and to Canada, Mexico, South America and England as a performer. The world champion rodeo bulldogger died in April 1932 after being kicked in the head by a horse. His legacy continues with a traveling rodeo that bears his name, the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo.
Bass Reeves, played by Delroy Lindo
Lawman Bass Reeves is one of the best-known Black historical figures from the Old West. He was the first Black deputy U.S. marshal west of the Mississippi and despite being illiterate, managed to memorize the warrants for every suspect he sought to apprehend.
Reeves was born into slavery in Arkansas in 1838. He served a stint in the Civil War as a servant and fought in several battles before escaping into Indian Territory as a fugitive slave. While there, he served in the Union’s first Indian Home Guard regiment and in 1875 became U.S. deputy marshal in the territory.
Reeves’ history as a lawman is notoriously colorful: He would often sing softly before going into a gunfight and once walked 28 miles dressed as a beggar to fool a pair of criminals into letting him stay the night. He was one of the most successful lawmen in American history, arresting more than 3,000 fugitives during his 32-year career. He was let go from the force when Oklahoma was granted statehood in 1907 but worked for the Muskogee police department for an additional two years before being diagnosed with Bright’s disease and dying in 1910.