Colourism Clouds The Rich Imagination Of The Harder They Fall

Photo: Courtesy of netflix.
In the new Netflix original movie The Harder They Fall, writer and director Jeymes Samuel pays homage to the rich legacy of the Black cowboy. Playful and imaginative, the action-packed film injects the spaghetti western genre with an energy like we’ve never seen before. Unfortunately, its brilliance is nearly undone by a troubling casting move that reflects a culture and deep-rooted history of colourist erasure. While the director’s creative license with the biographies of real-life individuals that inspired his characters is one of the film’s strengths, it’s also one of its biggest pitfalls — specifically in Samuel’s reimagining of Stagecoach Mary, a dark-skinned Old West legend who is portrayed by Zazie Beetz. 
The Harder They Fall is an epic revenge tale that plays out in the sandy backdrop of the 19th century American West, a place and time where outlaws ran the streets like they owned them. Samuel’s plot is deeply rooted in trauma: after witnessing the brutal murders of his parents at the hands of notorious outlaw Rufus Buck (Idris Elba), Nat Love (Lovecraft Country’s Jonathan Majors) also, ironically, turns to a life of crime and violence. Our protagonist grows up to be a storied black hat, riding across the West with his close-knit but equally famous gang (Edi Gathegi and RJ Cyler) and robbing rival outlaws. The untimely news of Buck’s escape from prison reignites Nat’s insatiable thirst for revenge, sparking an all-out war between the two factions that ends in a world-changing revelation. 
Samuel’s work begins with a disclaimer: “While the events of this story are fictional, these people existed.” The characters in his Netflix project are reimaginings of real historical figures who lived in the late 19th century. Nat Love was a formerly enslaved man who rose in fame as a sharp-shooting cowboy in the late 1800s. Elba’s Rufus Buck was taken from the origin story of the half-Black, half-Creek Indian teenage outlaw who rallied his violent gang against settlers looking to displace members of his community. Deputy marshal Bass Reeves (played by Da 5 Bloods’ Delroy Lindo) was famous for being an upstanding citizen of the law in a time of lawlessness. And as one of three women referenced in the film, the story of Stagecoach Mary is just as impressive. Born Mary Fields on a Tennessee plantation in 1832, Stagecoach Mary was a Black woman whose unique journey took her from working as a groundskeeper at a local Ohio convent to travelling the expanse of the United States as mail carrier. As the first known Black woman to take on the job, Stagecoach Mary gained a reputation for being a no-nonsense professional who took her career seriously, so seriously that her tenacity towards her work spawned legends that spread throughout the Old West
In the film, Beetz actually does an excellent job of embodying the legendary grit and tenacity that Stagecoach Mary is known for. She’s both revered and feared throughout the wild west, a domineering presence whether she’s performing at her saloon or riding through the wilderness on her trusty steed. Mary’s romantic entanglement with Nat also serves as the other driving force for his vendetta; when she’s is captured and held hostage by the Rufus Buck Gang, Nat’s love for her runs so deep that he is willing to abandon his stringent moral code and place himself directly in harm’s way to ensure her safety. 
Beetz’s understanding and subsequent embodiment of Stagecoach Mary as both a lover and a fighter is a direct reflection of her close study of the historical figure. To prepare for the role, she took a scholarly route, poring over stories about Black people’s experience in the West.
“Because we were filling in a lot of the blanks in the history books, I really wanted to absorb what the Black experience in the West was overall,” the actress told R29Unbothered in an interview prior to the release of The Harder They Fall. “I read up on Mary herself and on all of the [people that inspired the characters] as well as just a lot of literature on the Black West. What I took away from everything was a sense of empowerment. These are stories of perseverance, and it was so cool to learn how Black people thrived in that time. I wanted my depiction of Mary to embody that same level of tenacity and survivor spirit, and to be able to step toe-to-toe with every character encountered.”
Photo: Courtesy of Public Domain.
Despite Beetz’s careful preparation and execution, there is still something uncomfortable about this particular reworking of Stagecoach Mary. The impact of Stagecoach Mary’s life on Black American history can’t be understated, especially when we think of how the unique intersections of her identity no doubt complicated her experience. She was a Black woman — a dark-skinned, fat, older Black woman at that — making waves in a time where whiteness and masculinity ruled supreme. To be othered in almost every way possible and still succeed is nothing short of a miracle, yet The Harder They Fall singled out just one of those identities to build upon for its retelling. And while Samuel can technically get away with the casting because the premise of the film itself is Avengers-but-as-Black-cowboys, the erasure is troubling nonetheless because it is a clear example of the culture of colourism of the entertainment industry. 
If you’ve been paying attention to the television and film space, you know that colourism in Hollywood is not a new thing. In fact, recent works have been blatant about their tendency to overlook dark-skinned Black women across genres. From Gossip Girl 2.0 to the X-Men reboot(s) to Netflix’s black af, we’ve seen light-skinned Black actresses take center stage while their more melanated counterparts are often relegated to supporting roles (if any at all). Even in projects that are based on real events and people, colourism comes into play; in 2016, Zoe Saldana famously donned Blackface and facial prosthetics to bring the story of Nina Simone to life in the controversial and poorly-received biopic Nina
The persistent failure of this industry to recognise and centre dark-skinned Black women stings when it’s mainstream, but it feels more like betrayal when it’s from our own skinfolk. When the news of Beetz’s casting in The Harder They Fall broke, the announcement raised the eyebrows and, eventually, the ire of many people who were familiar with Stagecoach Mary’s biography. The German-American actress is not who most people had in mind to play the part of the western giant; Beetz looks nothing like the darker-skinned, plus-sized woman that her character is inspired by. However, in conversation with R29Unbothered, Samuel revealed that the actors cast in his film had always been part of the vision for his blockbuster from the conceptualisation stage of the project — including Beetz.
“I wanted this to be a story where I bring all of these characters that really existed and place them in one setting and one time in a fictional story like the Avengers,” he explained. “Pretty much the whole gang, I wanted to be in this story. I thought, okay, who would be my favourite person in the world to do this role? And then that person ultimately joined the movie.”
Although the casting itself was disappointing, what's even more troubling is the response to people’s valid qualms with the decision. Production on The Harder They Fall has wrapped, and the movie is now in cinemas and streaming on Netflix — we can’t undo what’s already been done. However, there should be an understanding and acknowledgement of the concerns that are arising rather than prickly defensiveness. Just weeks before the film was released across theatres, a casting director only known as “T.C.” took to Instagram to push back against the ongoing controversy about Beetz’s casting, and it didn’t go well at all.
“I understand colorism… this is not it,” he wrote on social media. “This film is plastered with beautiful DARK women — there’s no disregard here...My issue is that EVERYBODY else is dark. Period. One We will continue to complain. That is the bottom line.”
“It’s sad to me and very insulting to the actor who is looked at as ‘not black enough’,” T.C. continued in the comments. “No, she doesn’t look like Stagecoach Mary but how many actors do?”
That line of questioning is precisely the problem — there are a number of Black women actively working in Hollywood who share Stagecoach Mary’s complexion and build (Wunmi Mosaku and comedian Leslie Jones have since been floated in fan casts for the role, and...points were made), and pretending that they don’t exist only makes our point further. Colourism isn’t just about the mistreatment and erasure of dark-skinned Black people; it’s also the normalisation of that phenomenon and the tendency to try to silence any challenge of it. Even in an imaginative, fictional take on her role in the Old West, and even though Beetz portrays her with dignity and strength, the choice to not to be more authentic to the personhood of Stagecoach Mary is still an insult to her legacy.
As someone who has personally never been a fan of westerns, every scene of The Harder They Fall kept me at the edge of my seat. From the Blackity-Blackness of its soundtrack (an eclectic but effective mix of soul, hip hop, AfroBeat, and more), to the eye-catching cinematography, to the dynamic personalities of the ensemble characters, every element of the Samuels film is meticulously pieced together to reclaim the buried spirit of the Black Old West. It is, at its core, a love letter to the Black western, a celebration of a history that has too often been disregarded in mainstream discussions of the golden age of cowboys and outlaws. However, as a Black creator whose very intention was to celebrate a community that has historically been underrepresented, Samuel’s decison to not cast a dark-skinned Black woman as Stagecoach Mary is a painful blow; in his attempt to highlight her spirit, he actually erased one of the very things that likely shaped her struggle. 
Hollywood may think that colourism pays, but the truth is that it almost always compromises the authenticity of a project. In the case of The Harder They Fall, it takes away from the beauty of this rich celebration of Blackness, reminding us that even in the imaginary, dark-skinned Black women are considered replaceable. And ultimately, that is a fatal flaw. 
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