When it comes to blockbuster checklists, Netflix’s freshest gun-slinging western ticks all the boxes. A star-studded cast that includes Idris Elba, Regina King, Jonathan Majors and LaKeith Stanfield? Check. Intricately choreographed action scenes? Duh. A soundtrack that you’ll add to your Spotify favourites as soon as the credits roll? Hell yes, with new tunes courtesy of co-producer Jay‑Z adding to a roll-call of other fresh cuts from the likes of Koffee and Ms. Lauryn Hill.
But what makes The Harder They Fall really stand out is the fact that it’s about Black cowboys – real Black cowboys. Directed by London-born Jeymes Samuels, while the film’s plot is fictional, the characters in it actually existed. In fact, the exploits of Majors’ character Nat Love made him one of the most famous heroes of the Old West.
Why hasn’t his story made it to screen until now? We reckon you already know the answer to that.
The Harder They Fall isn’t the only film about Black cowboys, though. Cinema history is full of hidden-gem westerns that reference real Black history in their storytelling, characters or very existence. Looking for a few recommendations? Historian and Black westerns expert Tony Warner is your best bet. Here, he shares his top six films to get stuck into after The Harder They Fall. Ride ‘em, cowboy.
Bill Pickett “The Bull-Dogger” (1922), directed by Richard E. Norman
“This film no longer exists but it was originally a silent movie starring the real African American cowboy legend Bill Pickett, who was arguably the first Black movie star. The Bill Picket rodeo show still tours the USA and Pickett is in the US ProRodeo Hall of Fame. In The Harder They Fall, Edi Gateghi plays Bill Pickett.”
Lola Colt/Black Tigress (1967), directed by Siro Marcellini
“This Italian-made spaghetti western is an astonishing watch, if only to see a Black woman as a Wild West action hero kicking butt and taking names. The star, Lola Falana, who was a famous dancer and singer in the 1970s, has scenes where she leads a group of white men to attack the bad guy’s encampment. That description alone is phenomenal considering that at this time segregated cinemas still existed. She knocks white men out, shoots them, throws dynamite bombs and rescues prisoners!
“Even in 2021, it is hard to name five Black female action stars, so in 1967 such images would have been electrifying. The poster is undeniably sexist, though, and Lola is shown in a contorted position that no male star would ever be put in. Regardless of that and the dodgy Italian dub, this movie is ground-breaking and led the way for Regina King and Zazie Beetz to be in The Harder They Fall.”
Black Rodeo (1972), directed by Jeff Kanew
“A documentary rather than a drama, this very special film details real African American cowboys and references the paucity of their filmic depictions. Starring Muhammad Ali riding a horse in Harlem and narrated by African American screen legend Woody Strode, it highlights Black cowboy skills in rodeo, bull-riding and roping. Great music is provided by Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and BB King.
“Interestingly, Strode was one of the first Black western stars, 40 years after Bill Pickett made his silent debut. Strode featured in Sergeant Rutledge (1960, directed by John Ford), a commentary on racial justice in the Wild West. But the production was so ‘liberal’ it refused to give Strode top billing in the film even though he was the star of the movie.”
Buck and the Preacher (1972), directed by and starring Sidney Poitier
“Whereas The Harder They Fall uses real names in fictionalised settings, this film uses made up names but real history. Starring Seventies Black superstars Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte (think: Will Smith and Denzel Washington in the same movie in 2021), it broke ground with two huge African American celebrities in the same film as Black cowboys. Financed by singer and activist Harry Belafonte, the plot involves a group of Black farmers trying to escape a new form of slavery in the aftermath of the American Civil War.
“Such events actually happened: groups called Exodusters moved out of the Deep South into frontier land to escape racist practices. The movie shows ‘nightriders’, AKA the Klan, chasing the group to force it back to work on slave plantations or be killed. It is also a pointed commentary on civil rights issues, which both Poitier and Belafonte were heavily involved in.”
Posse (1993), directed by and starring Mario van Peebles
“Mario is the son of the legendary actor and filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles and, like his dad, promotes real history and positive Black imagery on the big screen. A glossy, music video-style production, the story follows Jesse, an ex-Buffalo Soldier (the 9th and 10th Cavalry were all Black army regiments formed after the Civil War, nicknamed Buffalo Soldiers – Bob Marley sang about them in his famous song of the same name). He rides to the rescue of a town run by a corrupt sheriff. It also includes a love story with a Native American woman. Woody Strode is respectfully cast as the narrator, and the movie opens with him referencing real-life historical Black cowboys, like his role in Black Rodeo.
“In actual history, many escaped Africans formed relationships with Native Americans. The most famous pairing would be John Horse and the Seminoles, who led the largest slave revolt in US history. This group had their own safe haven, negotiated their freedom before American slavery officially ended in 1865 – and, when the US government went back on their word, fought their way to Mexico and set up their own republic.”
They Die by Dawn (2013), directed by Jeymes Samuels
“This was Samuels’ first western, with a much smaller budget than the $90 million dropped on The Harder They Fall. It’s worth watching to see the evolution of his style, but also to see how Samuels previously committed to using historical figures in his fictionalised drama. Erykah Badu plays real-life legend Stagecoach Mary Fields and Nat Love is portrayed by the recently deceased Michael K. Williams.”
Tony Warner is an expert on Black westerns and a historian who runs Black History Walks in London. The Harder They Fall is on Netflix now