AISHA HARRIS, HOST:
Hey, everyone. Just a quick warning that this episode contains a reference to a racial slur.
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HARRIS: "The Harder They Fall" is the latest modern take on the movie Western, packed with references to the genre and nods to real-life Black cowboys and cowgirls. In it, an outlaw and his gang seek revenge on another for a horrific crime committed many years ago. Gunfights and showdowns ensue, of course. The movie is now streaming on Netflix and boasts an impressive cast that reads like a who's who of Hollywood's A-list - Jonathan Majors, Regina King, Idris Elba and LaKeith Stanfield, just for starters. Does this revisionist tale live up to the incredible talent involved? I'm Aisha Harris, and today we're talking about "The Harder They Fall" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR.
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HARRIS: Joining me today is Audie Cornish. She is one of the hosts of NPR's All Things Considered and the host of Consider This, NPR's daily afternoon news podcast. Hey Audie, it's great to have you back.
AUDIE CORNISH, BYLINE: Hey there, guys. Thanks for having me.
HARRIS: Also with us is NPR's White House correspondent, Ayesha Rascoe. Also great to have you back, Ayesha.
AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: Yes, glad to be back.
HARRIS: So in the opening scene of "The Harder They Fall," a young boy watches as his mom and dad are murdered right in front of him by a mysterious gunman named Rufus, who's played by Idris Elba. Flash forward some years later and the boy, Nat Love, is now a simmering gunslinger played by Jonathan Majors. Nat and his gang of Texas outlaws seek revenge on Rufus, who was recently freed from prison, and their adversaries go to war over money and, more importantly, pride. Among Nat's associates, there's Stagecoach Mary, played by Zazie Beetz, Cuffee, played by Danielle Deadwyler, and Jim Beckworth played by RJ Cyler. Rufus' gang includes treacherous Trudy, who's played by Regina King, and Cherokee Bill, played by LaKeith Stanfield. We also have Delroy Lindo, who plays the marshal, Bass Reeves. This is the feature debut for director Jeymes Samuel, who co-wrote the screenplay with Boaz Yakin. Now, Audie, let's start with you. I know you actually interviewed Jonathan Majors for Fresh Air. So you've been immersed in this movie, and I'm curious as to what your thoughts are.
CORNISH: I mean, I have a lot of thoughts as an interviewer because you sort of, like, burrow into a thing - right? - in order to talk about it. As just, like, a viewer and person in my house, I thought it was a blast. I thought it was very much in the tradition of the Spaghetti Western, which is that sort of phase and genre of films from the '60s - kind of Sergio Leone's filmmaking style. And the thing I really liked about that is those Westerns were supposed to have kind of broken down and reconstructed the American Western that had been put on screen. So by definition, they were made by outsiders in a way and sort of reimagined what those films could look like. And so this is at home in that canon. Jeymes Samuels, also known as The Bullitts, who, you know, is a singer and producer and brings music to it - right? - brings all of the imagery you expect, meaning that church steeple, that wide expanse of prairie and the people riding their horses on it. He brings something to it that Jonathan Majors, who's the star of it, who plays Nat Love, said, which is romance. And I think that's the part of it that I really enjoyed - seeing this being done in a way that felt fresh and yet still true to the roots of the genre in Hollywood.
HARRIS: I agree with you. I love many of the visual cues that happen, especially a lot of the introductions of each character felt very grand in a way and reminded me of Westerns like "The Searchers," where the first time we see John Wayne's character show up, you have, like, the silhouette of the woman in the doorway, and then you see him slowly pull up. Like, all the ways in which there's those nods to how we introduce characters like Regina King's character and Idris Elba, like, just really, really pays careful attention to how we're going to view these characters as the movie goes on. Ayesha, what were your thoughts on this movie?
RASCOE: Well, you know, I came to this definitely the way I come to all movies as just like a person sitting in my house, and I also come to it as a person who I grew up and my stepfather and my mom - they would watch the Western channels, like, on satellite TV. And I hated Westerns. Like, I hated - like, they were so boring. I'm like, they're dusty. It's people walking around. Like, I could not stand...
HARRIS: So much dust.
CORNISH: Dusty - that's (unintelligible).
RASCOE: They were dust - so much dust.
RASCOE: There's just a lot of dust everywhere. And I was just like, I just don't get why people watch these. Like, they're so boring. This is not that. And obviously, it's not just that it's an all-Black cast, but it has a rhythm to it. It's almost hip-hop, right? Like, it does bring that kind of flavor. You can feel, like, a Jay-Z who knows how to make moments, right? Like, you can feel, like, those sorts of touches. So I really enjoyed it. And these were characters who talked in a way that I felt like I could understand and appreciate and who seemed real, right? Like, I mean, obviously, I love Southern characters, and they had that Southern drawl, especially Jonathan Majors. And I'm very jealous of Audie for getting to interview Jonathan Majors.
CORNISH: Well, he liked watching Westerns with his grandparents. Thank you very much.
HARRIS: He didn't mind that they were dusty.
RASCOE: And I would have said, me too (laughter). You really watch this and feel the difference in a piece of filmmaking that is made by Black people about Black people.
CORNISH: And I think with this, you have all the actors in it who are amazing, right? - your Idris Elba, your Regina King, whoever. They're using accents that they have worked on and sort of decided on that have to do with the Black diaspora at that time, the late 1800s. They're based on Bass Reeves, Cherokee Bill, Nat Love. These were actual figures - Stagecoach Mary - who were actual figures. They didn't live all at the same time, but these are people who lived. And it tries to imagine them in a world in which they are not preoccupied with anything but their own lives...
CORNISH: ...which Hollywood doesn't always give us. Sometimes Hollywood only gives us a world in which people of color are only preoccupied with how they are treated by white people.
RASCOE: Yes, yes.
CORNISH: And this actually doesn't feel anything like that. And so you can live and breathe in that world very comfortably, even if you are not Black, right?
CORNISH: Because you're just in the story.
CORNISH: I don't mean to rant about that, but it's something that I really came away with thinking, like - you know, compare this to watching a "Django."
RASCOE: No, no, no, it's...
CORNISH: Look, that did not work for me to hear the N-word thrown around that way...
CORNISH: ...as Tarantino deemed it. And in this space, with these people, it never felt gratuitous. It never felt like, why is this here? It really felt - like, the rhythm of language just felt much more comfortable and lived-in.
RASCOE: No, I have to cosign that. Because I was just thinking that, right before we got on, is how these were Black people who - yes, there are times of racism that are referred to in this movie because, yes, Black people deal with racism. But Black people also have full, lived lives that aren't just about racism. They love and they fall out with people and they have families and they have all this stuff that you don't always get to see in movies. And that's what I love. Like, having a movie where, yes, they're Black and, yes, there's racism, but these are also, like, real people who have thoughts and live and exist outside of just what white people do to them.
HARRIS: Right. I'm glad you both mentioned "Django" because I think when people think of the Black Western, that is probably what most people think of as, like - that is the definitive example. But there is this whole rich history that I think that this movie is drawing from that is not "Django"-inspired. Yes, there are definitely some Tarantino-esque moments, especially when it comes to the way the violence is deployed in certain scenes. And the needle drops feel very similar to "Django."
But there's also, you know, a movie like "Posse," which came out in 1993 - was directed by Mario Van Peebles. And I actually don't really think the movie's that good, but in a similar way, that movie tries to weave in this history about real-life Black cowboys and cowgirls and all of those things - and even has Woody Strode, who was a favorite actor of John Ford back in the '60s. Mario Van Peebles is drawing from that history.
There's also - there is a trio of movies from the Blaxploitation era that I think "Django" was also inspired by, the first of which is called "The Legend Of Nigger Charlie." Yes, that is the actual name of the movie because it was the Blaxploitation era and - you know, I can't imagine a movie being able to be called that now, but (laughter) that's what it was. And those movies starred Fred Williamson, who is the football-player-turned-actor, and he played a former slave. And that had a lot of, like, getting back at Whitey, those types of things. But he was a cowboy and, you know, he was proud.
And so I see this movie drawing from those inspirations, as well as the Herb Jeffries movies of the 1930s, in really interesting ways. And I'm curious about, like, how you all think of these other characters who are weaved in in these other performances. You know, LaKeith Stanfield is doing some really interesting stuff here. His accent is really interesting. Also, Regina King's accent - I was trying to figure out what was going on there.
CORNISH: It's supposed to be, like, Cajun...
HARRIS: I felt like there was something there that I was like, I don't know what's going on, but it's interesting. What do you think of these other characters?
RASCOE: I think all the performances were amazing. Regina King was amazing. Whatever accent she was speaking, I believed it. I was like, she that girl. That's her. And I cared about all the characters. I'm down with, like, make more. Like, I want to know more about both of the gangs. I want to see, like, how did they come together? I could watch more of this.
HARRIS: The way it ends, it suggests maybe - like, this isn't a spoiler, but, like, they're trying to set it up for a sequel.
RASCOE: I did have an issue - and this was talked about a lot about on social media. So Stagecoach Mary by Zazie Beetz - she did a great job. Like, so this is no shade to her as an actress. Obviously, these were all real people. None of them really looked like the people, but she looked very different from Stagecoach Mary, you know, in that she's very light-skinned than - Stagecoach Mary was very dark-skinned. My issue is that in Hollywood, it seems like there is this formula where you have a Black actor and a light-skinned or racially ambiguous romantic interest. Why can we not have a dark-skinned woman be the person who the hero wants to get with and save?
RASCOE: Like, I feel like we don't see that enough.
HARRIS: Right. When you also compare her to Danielle Deadwyler, who is playing Cathay, who - she's sort of gender-ambiguous.
RASCOE: Yes. Androgynous, yeah.
HARRIS: They make a big deal out of it later in the movie that she's not used to being more feminine type, and she is dark-skinned. And while I love that we had that sort of balance between, you know - not that Zazie Beetz's character is super feminine. But she is - you know, the first time we see her, she's wearing, you know, a corset and is very sexual and sexy.
RASCOE: She's the object of desire. That's the thing.
HARRIS: Exactly. And then you have - compare her to, you know, the Cuffee character. And it's like, you know, couldn't we have swapped this or at least have two dark-skinned women playing these roles? I completely agree with you. And it's something that - every time I watch these movies, I think about it because it's definitely been a trend for a while where we have these things happening. You also have actresses like, you know, Zendaya and Storm Reid, who are just - and I love all of them.
RASCOE: They're great.
HARRIS: I think they're all fantastic actors.
RASCOE: Yeah. It's not about them as actresses. It's just the context and everything. And, like, the fact that it just happens over and over again, it stands out.
CORNISH: I think, in terms of the other performances - I mean, for me, Zazie Beetz, it's hard for me to criticize her because I have such love for the cast of "Atlanta."
HARRIS: Yes. It was great to see her and LaKeith together (laughter).
CORNISH: Seeing their careers flourish over the last few years...
CORNISH: ...Has really been a delight, not just because "Atlanta" was just such an incredible show, but because they are incredible acting talents.
CORNISH: And it's amazing to see someone like LaKeith Stanfield, who plays Cherokee Bill - a version of Cherokee Bill. Don't Google him because they don't look alike either.
RASCOE: No, they don't. They don't (laughter).
CORNISH: Playing a kind of role where he's that hard-fought, jaded gunslinger who's just taking out people left and right but just feels bad about it. And RJ Cyler, who is, really, a delightful young actor who I'm glad to see getting this opportunity, playing the kind of character LaKeith would have played a few years ago. Do you know what I mean?
HARRIS: Yeah (laughter).
CORNISH: Like, LaKeith has already graduated to jaded gunslinger. And he's been on the scene for, like, a minute.
CORNISH: This is such a wonderful introduction to the IMDb pages of some of these actors. If you haven't seen a lot of their work, this is a great opportunity to seek out who they are and learn a little bit more because they are, actually, incredible talents who aren't always getting the same opportunities.
CORNISH: As for other performances, Delroy Lindo is just, like, on a roll. He plays Bass Reeves, which is based on a character who was a Black sheriff. When you compare these to the westerns of the '90s, your "Unforgivens" and things like that, those were often big ensembles as well. And this had a similar approach - right? - where you have two rival gangs. And you have one big bad. And you have another young gun who's up-and-coming. And the whole premise of the thing is, will the young gun kind of usurp the big, bad villain? And what will it cost him to do that? It really does manage to nail those aspects of it, the revenge element and the major daddy issues...
RASCOE: They always got daddy issues.
HARRIS: Yes, so many daddy issues.
CORNISH: ...Are, like, literally always involved in every Western.
CORNISH: They're just one long daddy issue. And the fighting is brutal.
HARRIS: It is. Yeah.
CORNISH: The other thing is, it's funny.
HARRIS: Yes. Yeah.
CORNISH: And I really hope people get to enjoy that, the humor of it. The rhythm of the humor is strong.
CORNISH: And I think I'm not as piqued by sort of who was cast in terms of their physical attributes because none of these people look like any of the people.
RASCOE: They don't.
CORNISH: I mean, the woman Zazie Beetz is playing was a mail carrier.
RASCOE: Yeah. Yeah.
CORNISH: Like, she carried a gun.
CORNISH: But, like, she was a mail lady, right?
RASCOE: Yeah. Yeah.
CORNISH: So just a totally different thing?
RASCOE: Yeah. It's less about the historical accuracy and just more about who they always cast as the love interest.
CORNISH: I know. But for me, that's kind of like wondering why the blonde is always the love interest, you know?
CORNISH: There's an aspect of Hollywood that is always going to favor whiteness and lightness, right? That's why the brunette wears glasses.
CORNISH: And that's why - like, they can't abide by, right? This is who they consider the object of desire.
HARRIS: OK. But we've had years of Sandra Bullock and Julia Roberts (laughter).
RASCOE: I just want more (laughter).
CORNISH: Yeah. I mean, that doesn't change. That doesn't change. But that feels a little bit like white supremacy bingo. It's like, OK, you know...
CORNISH: ...You're going to drink when that card gets turned. But, like, the card is happening.
HARRIS: Yeah. Yeah.
RASCOE: It is what it is. Yeah.
CORNISH: Sorry to be fatalist. This is my Gen-X coming through.
RASCOE: You know, I just want more for - you know, people who I could be like, oh, that could be me.
CORNISH: Think about how rarely, though, you see two people of color - of any color - kissing in a movie...
RASCOE: That's - you don't.
CORNISH: ...Like, each other. It's rare in general.
RASCOE: And you often times don't get to see even Black male actors who are, like, very, very hot, be, like, the romantic. Like, you don't even get to really see that all the time.
CORNISH: Stories of Denzel Washington in the late '80s, early '90s are, like, legend.
HARRIS: Yeah. Yeah.
RASCOE: Well, I don't want to get into the white supremacy because that's what I was trying to avoid. So you right, let's...
CORNISH: It's OK. I like that you're bringing that energy because it reflects the idea that this is a movie that, for some of us, you enjoy feeling seen.
RASCOE: Yeah. Yeah.
CORNISH: Right? So you demand a little bit more because it's as Code Switch...
CORNISH: ...Our Code Switch play cousins say, rep sweats...
HARRIS: Yeah. And...
CORNISH: ...Where you sweat the representation because it feels very high stakes.
RASCOE: Yeah. Yeah.
HARRIS: Yeah. I think it's important to say that, like, I don't think that it really hinders...
HARRIS: ...Well, I don't want to speak for you, Ayesha.
RASCOE: It doesn't.
HARRIS: But, like, I don't think it hinders our viewing of it.
RASCOE: No. No, not at all.
HARRIS: I just think it's something to acknowledge. I also want to talk a little bit about just what we think of Jeymes Samuel. This is his first feature film. And I think he's doing some really interesting things, you know, camera wise and production wise. Like, the set production is out of this mind. Like, there's certain scenes, it seems clear that they spent a lot of time thinking about how they're going to design each different town they're visiting. When they go to the all-white town, which is literally all white, it's, like, dusty. But it's dusty white.
HARRIS: Like, the grounds are white. All the buildings are white. And then you see the Cuffee character and Jonathan Majors' character, Nat, enter the town. And they stand out, not just because they're Black, but because they are also - you know, she's wearing a bright red dress. I just love the attention to detail. And there's a really great shot where you have Idris' character standing in the window of his lair, where he's looking over the town. And then the camera tracks behind him and then swoops down into the town, across the town and then pulls up on Jonathan Majors' character on horseback.
I just think - just those really great moments of using the camera in interesting ways, I think, really make me want to see more from this director and see what else he can do. Because I think he's doing some really, really fun things that both subvert the sort of tropes and call them out and also just make it more fun to watch and to sort of, like, dig your teeth into.
CORNISH: Yeah. And I think, you know, whenever you have people who come from music and move into directing - whether that's Spike Jonze, whether that's Hype Williams - they bring a different kind of eye. And I think when it's critiqued, it's called sort of too commercial, right?
CORNISH: But I actually think that this is very stylized. And it's got energy, but it's restrained. And one moment that I'd like to point to is a moment where one of the characters basically starts singing. And it's done in a way that doesn't feel like a Musical - sentence caps, right? But it reflects sort of how music lives within the entire film.
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EDI GATHEGI: (Singing, as Bill Pickett) As they ran from you.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (Singing, as characters) As they ran from you.
GATHEGI: (Singing, as Bill Pickett) That fear in me.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (Singing, as characters) That fear in me.
GATHEGI: (Singing, as Bill Pickett) Is in a distant view.
JONATHAN MAJORS: (Singing, as Nat Love) Is in a distant view.
CORNISH: So the first voice you heard there - Edi Gathegi, who plays Bill Pickett. And then Jonathan Majors jumps in. And Majors told me that that is a song that he and Samuels (ph) actually wrote. But it feels like a Western, right? It feel - you're like, what is that Negro spiritual?
RASCOE: Yeah (laughter).
CORNISH: It's like, no, they just sat down with their guitars and like, made that up.
CORNISH: But it respects the period, which would be sort of post-Civil War, and it respects the genre in that you feel like you should be whistling it on a horse. It's a song that they start singing as they're about to enter battle. And it's another example, I think, of smart direction. There's nothing on the plate of this movie you can't eat. Everything on there is there for a reason, and it does its work well. And I really respect that. He really succeeds as a director.
RASCOE: Yeah. And I want to see this again. When they started singing, I was like, oh, they singing. I was, like, into it. And then when Jonathan Majors hits that note at the end, it took me to church. Like, it was like, oh, sing it, sing it now. Like, that's what you want to do with that. Like, it felt like - you connect to it in a way.
CORNISH: And it's not silly.
RASCOE: It's not silly.
CORNISH: It's not like a (unintelligible) gospel singer's in the back or, you know, record scratches and...
CORNISH: ...Like, DJing through it, right? It's a moment...
CORNISH: ...That feels organic. And to me, that is the balance that directors who come from a music tradition have to strike, not getting so enthralled with the part of this thing that they love that it takes over the storytelling.
HARRIS: Yeah. I mean, we talk a lot about needle drops on this show, if you've listened to recent episodes about certain movies, like "Last Night In Soho." They can be a hindrance, I think, and sort of a storytelling crutch. And this movie has a lot of needle drops in addition to sort of those other musical moments. And I think most of them work.
And I also think there's a movie where this could have been all just straight-up hip-hop in the same vein as something like "Django Unchained" or, you know, the James Brown. But instead, they pull from some reggae, they pull from - Fela Kuti, at one point, is playing in the background during a giant gunfight.
CORNISH: Flawlessly. I was like...
CORNISH: ...Why haven't I heard this in more (laughter)?
CORNISH: But it makes sense if you think about '60s, '70s Westerns...
CORNISH: ...And Black Westerns that came out, as you mentioned, between '70, '76. That's really honoring the heritage of the Western by, like, pulling from those periods.
HARRIS: Yeah, exactly.
CORNISH: And there is some outfitting of some of the characters that is actually a tiny bit '70s, and not 1870s. And I was here for it, you know? I was just like, yes, these costumes are amazing.
HARRIS: Yes, even the way they swagger. Like, there's a moment where Jonathan Majors shoots the gun and then just sort of falls back, and his arms fall behind him in, like, this very, like, huh (ph) kind of way. Like, oh, yeah, I just shot this gun. And I'm like, oh, I love it. It's just...
RASCOE: It was great.
HARRIS: Yeah (laughter).
RASCOE: Like, this - I mean, all these words just to say, it was great (laughter).
CORNISH: One little warning, I would say, for folks who are sitting down to watch this - I'm throwing this out there for the parents.
CORNISH: The first five minutes are brutal because they have that sort of obligatory movie orphaning that has to happen...
CORNISH: ...In every film ever (laughter).
HARRIS: Yes (laughter).
CORNISH: So just be prepared for, you know, a very graphic murder. And the rest of the film will feel a little more Western-y, fun, silly. But I do feel like that's something that should be said. Like, don't turn this off after the first three minutes because you think you don't like Westerns for the reasons that Ayesha said.
HARRIS: Yeah. Definitely had some "Inglourious Basterds" feel to it at that first scene.
CORNISH: Perfect. Yes.
HARRIS: Well, it sounds like we all really, really like this movie, and we suggest that you check it out. And we want to know what you think about "The Harder They Fall." You can find us at facebook.com/pchh and on Twitter @PCHH. And that brings us to the end of our show. Thanks to you both for being here. As always, it was great to have you both.
RASCOE: Thanks. This was so much fun.
CORNISH: Thank you.
HARRIS: And, of course, thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. We'll see you all tomorrow when we will be talking about the Netflix film "Passing."
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