The Spaghetti Western has always been one of my favorite genres. I think this is due to its frequent focus on questions of class, gender and race, never flinching away from how all of these things are necessarily bound together with history and politics. In fact, because of its unique historical positioning, I find this specific sub-category of film to be an especially fascinating look at the violent, greed-fueled origins of America, such as in Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) or Corbucci’s Django (1966). All of these themes have perhaps never been more fascinatingly handled than in my stream of the week, Jeymes Samuel’s 2021 homage to the genre, perhaps even a signal of its revival, The Harder They Fall.
Last year was special for this sub-genre. While much critical acclaim was given to Old Henry (rightly so), I think The Harder They Fall was perhaps overlooked because of this, and deserves way more attention than it received. To start with, the set design is classic, invoking everything we’ve come to know and love about the look of Westerns, but instead of the run-down, mud-soaked streets we’re used to, Samuel’s town is soaked in brightly colored buildings illuminated by rich candlelight and interpretive dancers (except for a particularly great scene where our protagonists go to a ‘white town’). That being said, I don’t think the film departs from these genre staples in a distracting or unsuccessful way. Viewers still get everything we expect in a film like this: from the revenge-driven plot to high-octane shootouts and dangerous love interests.
I think sticking to this familiar form—using its almost timeless patterns and motifs—was crucial for what Samuel was intending to do with this film. As we’re told in the opening credits: while the characters themselves are fictional, "THESE. PEOPLE. EXISTED." Despite the fact that race and racism was clearly a part of their daily lives that differed completely from anything Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name would have experienced, I think it’s important to look at the Black stories which took place during Westward expansion, when America was becoming what it is today, for better or worse.