At its core, The Harder They Fall is an American fable told from the perspective of the people who are usually sidelined or left out altogether in the genre. The new Netflix Western, which is produced by JAY-Z and premiered to streamers on Wednesday, brings director Jeymes Samuel's vision to life with an all-star cast that includes Jonathan Majors, Regina King, Idris Elba, Zazie Beetz, LaKeith Stanfield, and more ultratalented stars.
"The Harder They Fall will pull something into our culture that has been missing forever, as most every character in this film is based on a character that really existed," Samuel explained of his epic vision. The idea of the film grew from a lifetime of watching John Wayne and Clint Eastwood films, but not seeing Black men or women centred in any of them. "I loved Westerns so much growing up that when they invented Google, I began to research all these great characters that we never got to learn about through the movies." Those real stories of Black men and women who carved out their lives in the ruthless Old West became the basis for all the characters in The Harder They Fall. "I just assembled them like Black Gods, and put them in one space at one time."
All the classics of the Western tropes are present in Samuel's film and checked off with an efficiency that's oh-so satisfying, but then heightened with a formidable burst of stylised chaos. The outlaws ride off into the horizon accompanied by thundering hooves pounding the dusty landscape while Afro-Caribbean beats play. There's finger-twitching duels bolstered by the long shadows of our fearless gunslingers. You want a train robbery? Done. But this one is orchestrated by Academy Award-winner Regina King.
Costume Designer Antoinette Messam was tasked with gussying up the gunfighters and helping to bring Samuel's visionary characters to life. A legend in her industry, costuming is in Messam's blood. Her mother was a dressmaker, specialising in outfitting brides, and her grandfather was a tailor. Messam took all her genetic gifts and layered on an education studying textiles at the Academy of Design & Technology in Toronto. Since then, she's brought her artistry and magic to Creed, Superfly, Colossal, and more projects before joining The Harder They Fall.
"I grew up on Westerns. My father loved Westerns. I have pulled references for those that have had an influence and inspired me," explained Messam, but for this project she couldn't just rest on the standard tropes of traditional Westerns. Like everything else in The Harder They Fall, Messam was tasked with elevating the project to the next level. "To me, Jeymes isn't reinventing the classics here. He is creating his own classic. This has never been done before."
Messam started with her revenge-seeking hero: "Jonathan Majors as Nat Love always felt like Clint Eastwood in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly for me, how he walks and talks and moves in costume. The loner that always had people around him who were strong." With that classic, Western leading man in mind, Messam outfitted Majors in all the iconic tropes of Western films: denim and leather pieces that looked even better through a haze of gun smoke, sweat-soaked bandanas tied at the throat, and the perfect cowboy hat to hide his scar and squint into the sunset from beneath the dusty brim.
Idris Elba's character of Rufus Buck has one of the more obvious visual transformations in the film. He first (fully) appears in a faded black-and white-striped prison garb, which he wears until he is back in Redwood, his former town—a little kingdom he rules with a fist. Once back on his throne, he appears in lusher textiles that are miles from his jailhouse garb. "Idris transforms from his prison clothes when we first get a glimpse of him to seeing him all cleaned up, but still there are elements of his character that are not there yet. Even in his velvet and brocade look, he is still working through his transition from being a prisoner to now coming back to owning his town in a red coat after shedding his convict cottons . . . Trudy [played by Regina King] lets the citizens of Redwood know new laws are in place now that Rufus Buck is back!"
Messam worked closely with Regina King in order to breathe life into the character Treacherous Trudy. "For Regina, she brought her professionalism and experience to the look of her character. We talked about everything from how she was going to button her jacket to how she was going to take the jacket off, to the placement of her knife." That level of detail led to an authenticity that helped ground King's performance in reality. "Trudy is a gunslinger, but she could be that in a satin gown with a gun belt and it looked authentic and organic to her. Even when she rescues Rufus Buck and carnage ensues, she looks elegant." Indeed she does. Perched on a horse with a perfectly tailored corset and a luxe bowler hat, I bet you've never seen a more glamorous thief.
Of all the gunslingers in the film, Zazie Beetz's Stagecoach Mary might just get the best outfits. "Antoinette is really detail-oriented and puts her heart into making sure every piece really fits the character," said Beetz of the costume designer. For Beetz, those major pieces included a signature top hat, boned and laced corsets, layered riding gear topped with bright, cobalt shawls, and a shotgun accessory that accompanies her character everywhere like a toddler with their teddy bear.
All that gorgeous costuming fits perfectly in this righteously new school Western. The Harder They Fall is currently in select theatres and streaming on Netflix. I'll bet my six-shooter that you're going to fall in love with this film.