By Harrison Neville
When I first saw the trailer for “The Harder They Fall,” I was ridiculously excited. I’ve always loved a good old fashioned western, so it was bound to catch my eye, but there was one thing in particular that grabbed my attention.
All the main characters are Black.
Growing up as a bi-racial individual, representation is something that has always been an important issue for me. I didn’t see very much in the way of representation, on screen or otherwise. I went to Briarwood Christian school, a predominately white school. There were never more than five kids besides myself who weren’t white in my grade, and until I got to high school, there were no Black teachers.
It’s the little things that make the most impact, both good and bad. I’ll never forget the frustration I felt every year on grandparents’ day, trying to draw the little pictures of myself with my grandparents that they always asked us to do. All the other kids used the same crayon for their skin, one that they creatively referred to as “the skin color.”
I didn’t use the same crayon as everyone else. Every year, I would attempt to mix crayon colors to produce what I thought was the proper color for my skin. I’ve never really been dark enough to make people assume I was Black, but I still don’t look white, and I had no desire to draw a picture of myself to give my grandparents that showed me as white.
My teachers never really got why this bothered me. In general, it was clear that this was just an issue they couldn’t really understand, which is no doubt why my elementary school teachers often struggled to understand why I was so upset by the fact that standardized tests called for me to pick either white or Black as my race.
Every year, I would sit there and stare in frustration or ask my teachers what bubble to fill. The worst response I got was the time when one of my teachers told me to just bubble in white, since that is what I looked like. My response was to bubble in the option for “other,” just like I did every year.
I grew up seeing white as the default. A Black character in a movie was always nice, but I had an understanding that white was normal, and I should be okay with this. I certainly didn’t expect to see anyone like me on the screen.
Which takes me back to “The Harder They Fall.”
In recent years, we have certainly seen an increase in Black-led content, or even content that centers predominantly around Black individuals, where white people are in the minority.
That said, an all-Black western still was an eye-catcher. We have seen Black individuals making a break into westerns, but it has been in a subtle way overall. The remake of “The Magnificent Seven” included Denzel Washington, but it never really addressed anything related to race, or at least never in a meaningful way.
“The Harder They Fall” was anything but subtle. At one point, the main characters go to a white town. Whereas the Black towns in the movie were full of bright, vibrant colors, the white town was completely painted white. Literally, every building was painted white, without a trace of color. The visual contrast highlighted the concept of whitewashing, and illustrated the suppression of uniqueness in favor of uniformity in a whitewashed society. Plus, it left me laughing my head off.
There were certainly things that I didn’t like about the film. Moments that I felt were poorly scripted, or the plot just didn’t quite line up, but I don’t know many people who watch westerns hoping to see a really thoughtful narrative. Westerns are about ridiculous standoffs and lots of cowboy action shooting, and “The Harder They Fall” has those in spades.
For me, this film represents the opportunity for Black individuals to enjoy seeing themselves represented on the screen playing the roles of villains and heroes, and being allowed to be the stars of the show.