Netflix's 'The Harder They Fall' Tells a Fake Story About Real Black Cowboys

The Netflix Western depicts some of the most well-known real Black cowboys of the Wild West in a wildly entertaining ahistorical story.

jonathan majors, delroy lindo, the harder they fall
Jonathan Majors & Delroy Lindo | Netflix
Jonathan Majors & Delroy Lindo | Netflix

Let Hollywood tell it, the Wild Wild West was really, really white, but Netflix’s new gun-slinging Western, The Harder The Fall, sets out to put an end to that centuries-old misconception by introducing viewers to some of the most well-known Black cowboys and outlaws in American history. Written and directed by Jeymes Samuel and produced by Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter, the film pulls inspiration from real historical figures, ranging from Black pioneers such as Mary “Stagecoach Mary” Fields and Bass Reeves to infamous outlaws like Rufus Buck and Crawford “Cherokee Bill” Goldsby.

The Harder They Fall takes plenty of narrative liberties throughout its two-hour and 20-minute runtime, but from the jump, the film admits that it is in no way, shape, or form based on a true story. Instead, the Black Western is more focused on making sure that viewers know that these people existed by placing them in an unforgettable and action-packed tale, and The Harder They Fall assembled an all-star cast—Jonathan Majors, Idris Elba, Regina King, Zazie Beetz, LaKeith Stanfield, Delroy Lindo, Deon Cole, RJ Cyler, Danielle Deadwyler, and Edi Gathegi—to take on this coterie of historical figures.

It’s an ensemble that fans of shows like Atlanta, Watchmen, and Lovecraft Country would froth over, and each actor and actress involved definitely understood the assignment, making The Harder They Fall an incredible watch from start to finish. Days after the film’s arrival on Netflix, it still remains in the top three of the platform’s most-watched releases, so in honor of the film and its stellar cast, let’s debate the best standout moments from each of its main characters. Of course, major spoilers are in store from here on out, so if you haven’t watched Jeymes Samuel’s exhilarating Black Western, don’t say we didn’t warn you.

deon cole, the harder they fall

Deon Cole as Wiley Escoe

“I’m a sinister motherfucker too.”

Going into this movie, viewers familiar with Deon Cole would probably expect the comedian to be his typically goofy self, but his role as Redwood City’s shady mayor Wiley Escoe really shows off his range as an actor. In fact, Cole’s most dynamic moment in The Harder They Fall was the menacing monologue he performed in his Redwood City office. In what first appeared to be a tense meeting between Rufus Buck and Wiley Escoe, Cole’s character is seen in a close-up shot, chewing out the newly freed outlaw while gnawing on an exceptionally rare cut of steak. Utilizing his low, rumbling voice, Cole comes off as a villain with ease, and the scene’s intensity is at an all-time high when he says, “I’m a sinister motherfucker too.” It’s almost mind-blowing to see Deon Cole nailing such a dark and serious role, and even when the scene takes a comical turn, it only further demonstrates his versatility.

edi gathegi, the harder they fall
Edi Gathegi | Netflix

RJ Cyler as Jim Beckwourth & Edi Gathegi as Bill Pickett

“You hearsay. You don’t see-say. So I say, fuck Cherokee Bill.”

RJ Cyler’s Jim Beckwourth and Edi Gathegi’s Bill Pickett had some of the best chemistry throughout the entire film, and although the famous cowboys played supporting roles in The Harder They Fall, both of their talents had a major impact on the story. Pickett was an expert sniper while Beckwourth’s speed made him an unstoppable force in quickdraws, and as seen in their surprise attack on the Crimson Hood Gang, they were a dangerous combination. In addition to showing off their unique skillsets, their takedown of the hooded bank robbers gave viewers the first glimpse of their constant bickering. The scene also introduced Beckwourth’s one-sided rival with Cherokee Bill, which started after Picket teased him that he had heard of an outlaw that was faster than him. To that, Beckwourth hilariously replied, “You hearsay. You don’t see-say. So I say, fuck Cherokee Bill.” Unfortunately, they both succumbed to Cherokee Bill’s sheisty battle tactics, but while they were alive, they brought plenty of comic relief to The Harder They Fall.

zazie beets, the harder they fall

Zazie Beetz as Stagecoach Mary

That’s to remind you of what it is.”

Since her breakout role in Atlanta, Zazie Beetz has secured placements in superhero blockbusters like Deadpool 2 and Joker, but her latest role as Stagecoach Mary is perhaps one of her boldest in recent memory. Loosely based on the aforementioned Mary “Stagecoach Mary” Fields, Beetz’s character appears in The Harder They Fall as a retired outlaw, serial entrepreneur, and scorned lover. After she finishes singing a lively tune for the guests at her saloon in Douglastown, Stagecoach Mary reunites with Nat Love, giving him a passionate kiss. After their embrace, Mary instructs Nat to “get out,” causing him to question why she even kissed him in the first place. “To remind you of what it was,” she replies before abruptly decking her former lover with a fist to the jaw. Nat Love falls out from the force of her blow, and as he hits the ground, she says, “That’s to remind you of what it is.” With that scene, Stagecoach Mary made a hell of an entrance, and while her hand-to-hand showdown with Treacherous Trudy was a highlight from the film’s action-packed third act, no other scene quite captured her love and resentment for Nat Love as much as that hot-and-cold encounter in her saloon.

delroy lindo, the harder they fall

Delroy Lindo as Bass Reeves

“Devil’s white.”

Delroy Lindo’s portrayal of historic lawman Bass Reeves is one of the more factual character depictions in The Harder They Fall, and the British actor brings one of the United States’ first Black US Marshals west of the Mississippi to life with style and grace. As a man of the law, Lindo’s character refrains from participating in Nat Love and co.’s illegal endeavors, but his unyielding moral compass doesn’t prevent him from being one of the baddest characters in the film. The reserved, yet menacing Bass Reeves has many standout moments, and while the explosive “willing to bet my right arm” gag is an undeniable highlight, his best moment comes when Nat Love’s gang discovers that the outlaw and the marshal are working together to take down Rufus Buck. Urging Nat to let his friends come help him, Stagecoach Mary says, “You take on the Devil himself, you gonna need more than you and the marshal.” Lindo’s character responds to Mary and the rest of Nat’s crew with a piece of wisdom, saying, “I done seen the Devil, and Rufus Buck ain’t him. Devil’s white.” While Lindo’s character didn’t appear to be joking, that line has become one of the most memorable moments from The Harder They Fall.

danielle deadwyler, the harder they fall

Danielle Deadwyler as Cuffee

“Think I’m funny now?”

Of everyone in Nat Love’s gang, Cuffee is most certainly the MVP. The character—portrayed by Danielle Deadwyler—is inspired by Cathay Williams, the first Black woman to enlist in the United States Army. And as a nod to her history of posing as a man while serving in the military, Cuffee opts for a less feminine look in The Harder They Fall. In fact, the only time that she even considers ditching her trousers for a dress is when the crew is forced to rob a bank. Although Cuffee is visibly uncomfortable with the situation, she is still able to be her true self when the robbery in Maysville—which is architecturally and ethnically a white town—commences. While Nat Love handles crowd control, Cuffee secures the money, and after being embarrassed by one of the bank’s racist tellers, the steady-handed outlaw gets the last laugh.

idris elba, the harder they fall

Idris Elba as Rufus Buck

“Killing our father was retribution, but— But it wasn’t enough.”

Idris Elba plays Rufus Buck, The Harder They Fall’s big bad and the notorious leader of the real-life Rufus Buck Gang that terrorized the Indian Territory in the late 19th century. Throughout the film, viewers are given several reasons to fear Elba’s character, from his slaying of Nat Love’s parents in the opening scene to his relentless assault on Wiley Escoe in Redwood City. Yet, Rufus Buck’s most fleshed out moment arrives moments before his demise, during his final showdown with Nat Love. As Nat approached Buck for one last quickdraw, the treacherous outlaw revealed that they are actually half brothers, and the manner in which he explained his motives was chilling, yet heartbreaking. Following Jim Beckworth’s expected demise at the hands of Cherokee Bill, the intense scene was a twist that was truly unpredictable, and rather than serving as a last-minute ploy to drive sympathy for Elba’s character, it made Rufus Buck the second, more tragic protagonist of The Harder They Fall. Since it’s a story that is fueled by revenge, one can’t possibly root for Nat Love throughout the film without understanding Buck’s plight as well. Nat’s father had to die at Rufus Buck’s hands, just as Buck has to die at Nat’s. Their life-long conflict is a essentially a spin on the classic “sins of the father” trope, and it allows Idris Elba’s character to be remembered as more than just another evil motherfucker from the Wild West.

jonathan majors, the harder they fall

Jonathan Majors as Nat Love

I’m worth ten.”

Nat Love is arguably one of the coolest protagonists in 2021, and that distinction alone should honestly be enough to win Lovecraft Country actor Jonathan Majors some new hardware come award season. Honorable, sly, and more than capable in combat, Major’s character feels like a quintessential cowboy, and while his quest for revenge against Rufus Buck drives the movie’s plot, it’s clear that outside of his lifelong revenge plot, the orphan-turned-outlaw is one of the most likable badasses in the West. Viewers get their first taste of his mischievous sense of humor when he guns down one of the men responsible for the death of his parents. Following the shootout—which takes place in a chapel, of all places—Nat Love tells the shaken up preacher, “This is a wanted man. Turn his body in, and you’ll get $5,000 for your church.” The preacher then nervously asks why him doesn’t collect the bounty for himself, prompting Nat Love to deliver a line that will make you immediately fall in love with his character: “I’m worth ten.”

regina king, idris elba, lakeith stanfield, the harder they fall

Regina King as Gertrude “Treacherous Trudy” Smith & LaKeith Stanfield as Cherokee Bill

“Now that’s some unscrupulous shit.”

The entire train heist is arguably the best scene in The Harder They Fall, from the moment that Treacherous Trudy shoots the train conductor for saying “something that even starts with ‘N’” to the bloody re-emergence of Rufus Buck. Regina King and LaKeith Stanfield are exceptional as ​​Gertrude “Treacherous Trudy” Smith and Cherokee Bill, and Stanfield’s mild-mannered delivery perfectly complements Regina King’s ruthless and matter-of-fact attitude. Along with the rest of the Rufus Buck Gang, Treacherous Trudy and Cherokee Bill take an unsuspecting train hostage in a strategic effort to free their crime boss, and, if they weren’t framed as the antagonists of this film, their charisma, pride, and impressive skillsets would make it hard to not root for them.

Stanfield has the joy of firing off plenty of unforgettable lines—from, “Now let it be known that I don’t particularly enjoy violence. That being said, you are currently in the company of extremely violent individuals,” to, “You’re just going to let us get away Dred Scott free?”—and the Sorry To Bother You actor knocks them out in a playfully dangerous way that only he can. However, Treacherous Trudy fires off what’s perhaps one of the best one-liners from the whole film. While confronting the “Officiant of the Goddamn Law” on the train, King’s character calls him out for pillaging and destroying a small town, just to steal their silver. In response to that, King berates him by saying, “Now, that’s some unscrupulous shit.” Beyond Regina King and LaKeith Stanfield’s downright astounding performances, the train heist scene also pays homage to one of Hollywood’s fallen stars of 2020. A wide shot of the two actors walking alongside the length of the train shows that the name of the locomotive is “C.A. Boseman,” a nod to Black Panther, 42, Get On Up, and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom actor Chadwick Aaron Boseman.

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Joshua Robinson is an Atlanta-based contributor for Thrillist. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter at @roshrisky.