This article is part of the USSO special series Resilience/Renewal: Shifting Landscapes in American Studies
The popularity of the Western as a genre solidified the frontier mythology as one of the building myths of the American nation and its cultural iconography. However, the Western carries sinister implications in its ‘good guys vs bad guys’ code. The danger of keeping the Western alive without revision lies in the frontier myth’s binary, civilization/savagery, that excused the violence towards cultural Others in the name of expansion and progress of the (white) United States and white exceptionalism. This binary is mirrored in the earliest forms of Western literature as well as the first cinematographic Westerns, in which the villains are often Native Americans, who are considered ‘savage’, barely human, to justify their demise at the hands of the white heroes.[i]
Through their Otherness, the frontier myth defined Native Americans as part of the territory, vanishing alongside the wilderness.[ii] The depictions as either one-dimensional villains or a vanishing race excluded them from the myth’s promise of freedom, wealth, and progress. Similarly, Black people were defined by their Otherness as subordinate to white people. They were exploited for economic profit of the growing country while being excluded from its wealth and freedom, and thus the American dream symbolised by the frontier.[iii]
Despite Westerns interpreting the settlement of the frontier as a white domain, the western towns were hardly all-white spaces. People contributing to the westward expansion were from varied cultural backgrounds, and the study of those previously excluded from the frontier’s promise has advanced considerably in the last decades. More critical attention is being paid to Native American perspective on the western settlement, the Mexican side of the Southwestern frontier, Chinese contribution to railroads, women’s place in the West, even African American involvement on the frontier.[iv] Now, this trend is being explored in popular culture, by Westerns such as Jeymes Samuel’s The Harder They Fall (2021).
The introductory remark of the film is: “While the events of this story are fictional…These. People. Existed,” asserting Black presence on the frontier.[v] Black cowboys, settlers and businessowners indeed lived in the West, like Nat Love, Mary Fields, or Jim Beckwourth.[vi] The Harder They Fall uses the fictionalized versions of historical figures to highlight the presence of Black people within the frontier landscape through the contrasting aesthetics of Maysville and Redwood, the latter facing the danger of dispossession similar to that of Native American communities, aligning those excluded from the frontier’s promise together. The film cleverly manipulates genre convention and the critique of the racial binary attached to Westerns by crafting the plot around conflict between Black people.
The Harder They Fall pits two gangs of Black characters against each other. Nat Love wants revenge on Rufus Buck, who killed his parents. When Nat’s plan to trick Rufus backfires, a member of Nat’s gang and a successful businessowner, Mary Fields, is taken by Rufus. To save her life, Nat must rob a bank in Maysville for Rufus. But instead of handing the money over, Nat’s gang blow it up and an intense gunfight ensues. Suffering many casualties on both sides, Nat and Rufus face off. In a shocking turn of events, Rufus reveals that Nat is his brother. Unable to accept this fact and perform mercy, Nat kills Rufus, settling the revenge plot. In the end, Nat fakes his own death, riding off not as a solitary figure, but with Mary. Unbeknownst to them, they are being watched by the lone survivor from Rufus’s gang, Trudy Smith, replacing one revenge plot with the potential of another.
The focus on the conflict between Black figures blurs the ‘good guys vs the bad guys’ distinction instead of perpetuating the myth’s racial divide, usually presented as white cowboys against Native Americans. But the Black perspective requires the inclusion of the threat of whitewashing of the western landscape as well as racism at the backdrop of the plot. With barely any white characters in it, the film continues to allude to the nefarious dealings of white people. The comments on racism against Black people, for example Mary’s song about slavery and segregation, or the mention of the Dredd Scott decision denying freedom to enslaved people, stress the disadvantaged position of African Americans in North America, including the West. The conflict of the western landscape and the Black struggle culminates in the town called Maysville.
When Maysville is first mentioned, its whiteness is immediately announced: “Maysville? That’s a white town.” As Nat’s gang approaches the town, the dust turns white before “Maysville (It’s a white town)” appears in white lettering. Everything in the town is white: the sand, the buildings, even the horses. The inside of the bank is also white, except gold accents symbolising wealth, including a painting depicting a stark white valley and mountains. Nat and Cuffee are made hyper-visible in such surroundings, emphasizing the danger Black people face in (artificially coded) white spaces. At the same time, the energy people must put into keeping the town white ridicules the concept and criticizes the effort of governing white supremacy through slavery, segregation, and whitewashing of history as well as the American landscape.
The whiteness of Maysville is contrasted by Redwood. The town visually stands out for its brightly painted set pieces, which literally bring colour to the monotone western landscape. The citizens are all people of colour. It is revealed that Rufus needs money to save Redwood from being re-settled by presumably white investors, as Trudy announces: “The territory will officially open up for settlement. […] See, your land, your businesses, your homes has all been promised to the highest bidders […].” However, the intentions of the gang are questioned by the inhabitants, prompting Rufus to ask: “You think I made Redwood for myself? To what end?” Rufus implies he founded the town for Black people, a common practice across the United States, to be safe from slavery, exploitation, and racism.[vii] His actions are not motivated by personal vendettas or individualistic goals as in typical Westerns; rather, Rufus wants to help his people, complicating his status as the villain of the story. He wants to save Redwood from being whitewashed and the people dispossessed.
Redwood’s looming threat mirrors the dispossession of Native Americans. As the frontier advanced, Native American settlements were overtaken and massacred by white officials to secure land and its wealth.[viii] This is acknowledged in the film when Rufus is released from prison to assassinate a white Lieutenant, who wiped out a whole town for silver, including women and children, alluding to real events such as the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre.[ix] The existence of Redwood encroaches on the whiteness of the frontier’s promise, just like Native American settlements, and thus faces the same danger of dispossession.
Because the film is presented from the Black perspective, the Native American plight is only hinted at to avoid misrepresentation of Native American experience. Cherokee Bill is part Cherokee and part African American, reinstating Native American presence within the frontier and connecting it to the Otherness of Black people in relation to white colonisers. Even his last words, “Being scared will only give you bad karma in the afterlife,” are spoken in Cherokee. The fact that Cherokee Bill is the only character of this heritage, together with his final words, serves as a reminder of the genocide of Native Americans during the settlement of the western land, which almost reduced them to a spectral presence in the whitewashed history.
Similarly, the involvement of Black people on the frontier has been omitted from the nation’s history and popular culture. By criticising the whitewashing of history without perpetuating the civilized/savage binary, with the acknowledgment of Native American presence and the experiences of Black people during the settlement of the West, Samuel revises the genre to include previously excluded groups. The film’s critique does not obstruct the main revenge plot, enabling the film to be enjoyed even without the knowledge of the wider context. Samuel achieves this by sticking to the most iconic tropes of the Wild West—the outlaws, the bank robbery, standoffs, and gunfights—while highlighting African American cultural forms: the historical frontier figures, the blues-like singing, call and response, playing the dozens (a form of verbal taunting based on wit, humour and language), businesses named after Black public figures, or the modern soundtrack full of Black artists.[x] By putting the African American culture within the formula of the Western, The Harder They Fall naturalizes the Black presence in the western landscape, reversing the whitewashing of the frontier while contributing to wider awareness of this fact in popular culture.
[i] Richard Slotkin, Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America (New York: Atheneum, 1992), 10
[ii] Richard, Regeneration Through Violence: the Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998), 40, 294, 484
[iii] Michael K. Johnson, Black Masculinity and The Frontier Myth in American Literature (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2002), 4
[iv] Patricia Nelson Limerick, The Legacy of Conquest (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1988), 27
[v] Jeymes Samuel, dir. The Harder They Fall, Overbrook Entertainment, 6 October 2021, Accessed 5 December 2022, Netflix
[vi] Quintard Taylor, In search of the Racial Frontier: African Americans in the American West 1528–1990 (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1998), 86
[vii] Margaret Washington, “African American History and the Frontier Thesis,” Journal of the Early Republic 13.2, (Summer 1993): 230-241, 238
[viii] Richard Slotkin, The Fatal Environment: The Myth of the Frontier in the Age of Industrialization 1800-1890 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994), 531
[ix] Christopher Rein, “‘Our First Duty Was to God and Our Next to Our Country’: Religion, Violence, and the Sand Creek Massacre,” Great Plains Quarterly 34.3, (Summer 2014): 217-238, 235
[x] Henry Louis Gates, Jr., The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), 69,71