Where have all the Black cowboys gone? They are raging in the heart and mind of debut filmmaker Jeymes Samuel’s “The Harder They Fall,” an advantageous and stylistic western that could become one of the most popular flicks on Netflix and a populist selection in the major Oscar categories, which could include rapper Jay-Z.
Brutal, violent and cool as hell, the blood-squibb-western, which opened the BFI London Film Festival, is a genre piece that will likely lend itself to comparisons to filmmakers such as Quentin Tarantino, which is perfectly apt. However, one of the questions is how the Oscars will respond to this film that’s seemingly unfamiliar to what Academy members have traditionally seen in the genre. Netflix may be hoping for the Oscars to get really cool really fast, which they have shown inklings of in the past few years (“Black Panther” best picture nom). But the Oscars don’t always receive the memo.
While “Pulp Fiction” (1994), “Inglourious Basterds” (2008) and “Django Unchained” (2012) are often brought up as examples of the Academy’s acceptance of more gruesome, unconventional material, it’s never that simple. We tend to forget that “Reservoir Dogs,” both “Kill Bill” entries and mostly all of “The Hateful Eight” (2015) were ignored by AMPAS. Once again, Netflix has an abundance in the awards conversation this year — “The Power of the Dog” from Jane Campion, “The Lost Daughter” from Maggie Gyllenhaal, “Passing” from Rebecca Hall, “Tick, Tick…Boom!” from Lin-Manuel Miranda and “Don’t Look Up” from Adam McKay. Can Netflix perfect its Oscar juggling act?
Samuel, who could be better known by his stage name The Bullitts or as the younger brother of the Grammy-winning singer Seal, is firing on all cylinders. While the film’s events are fictional, the people are real, as the opening title cards state. “The Harder They Fall” tells the story of Nat Love (Jonathan Majors), a Black cowboy who reassembles his former gang to seek revenge against Rufus Buck (Idris Elba), who murdered his parents when he was a child.
The cast members are dynamically charged, each giving nuances and rhythms to the scenes they inhabit. It’s something that the SAG nominating committee could recognize and find love in the cast ensemble category at the SAG Awards. But, unfortunately, individual mentions for the actors are also an enigma.
Seeking out a conventional “Oscar scene” that has been typically recognized, Academy Award winner Regina King (“If Beale Street Could Talk”) has the character orchestration that’s easy to check off on a voter’s ballot. But, instead, her Trudy Smith is given scenery to chew and delivers a sinister monologue that allows the veteran actress to shine once again.
Elba’s terrifying turn in a supporting actor won’t feel unfamiliar in the supporting actor realm. The category has loved and embraced the charismatic yet dark deliveries of various villain interpretations, such as Javier Bardem (“No Country for Old Men”), Heath Ledger (“The Dark Knight”) and Christoph Waltz (“Inglourious Basterds”). However, Elba has a more impassioned edge to the role. Depending on a voter’s overall reaction to the film will determine if he can finally make the Oscar cut. Of course, it helps that Elba still has a famously egregious snub under his belt for “Beasts of No Nation” (2015), which was one ingredient for the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite.
Lakeith Stanfield was my personal favorite of the cast but it’s doubtful he’ll factor into the conversation with Elba so prevalent. Majors creates his best outing yet in the acting realm and has launched himself into the “movie star” level of his career. Watch out for more roles to come his way, but the best actor race is far too stacked for him to make a play this year. The film also stars the great Zazie Beetz, the recently snubbed Delroy Lindo, RJ Cyler, Danielle Deadwyler, Edi Gathegi and Deon Cole.
Under his real name Shawn Carter, Grammy-winning rapper and record executive Jay-Z serves as one of the film’s producers, in addition to Samuel, three-time Oscar-nominee Lawrence Bender (“Pulp Fiction,” “Good Will Hunting” and “Inglourious Basterds”) and recent Emmy nominee James Lassiter (Netflix’s “Cobra Kai”). There isn’t a long list of rappers-turned-Oscar-winners, which only includes Eminem (original song for “Lose Yourself” from “8 Mile”), Three 6 Mafia (original song for “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” from “Hustle and Flow”) and Common (original song for “Glory” from “Selma”). Kendrick Lamar was the most recent nominee for “All the Stars” from Marvel Studios’ “Black Panther,” which was nominated for song, record and album of the year at the Grammys. This soundtrack can easily follow suit with its massive and sensational tracks.
The buck doesn’t stop there for “The Harder They Fall” in the pursuit of Oscar history. More than 30 years ago, Quincy Jones became the first Black creative to receive three nominations in picture, score, and song for “The Color Purple” (1985). Jordan Peele (“Get Out”) and Spike Lee (“BlacKkKlansman”) are the only two Black filmmakers to receive nominations for picture, directing and screenplay in one year. Samuel could be in the running in four categories, which past filmmakers like Alfonso Cuarón (picture, directing, original screenplay and cinematography for “Roma”) and Chloé Zhao (picture, directing, adapted screenplay and editing for “Nomadland”) have achieved in their respective years, and walking away with at least statuettes. No Black auteur has ever achieved this feat. Can Samuel become the first?
Samuel also assembles many of the artisans behind “Jojo Rabbit” including cinematographer Mihai Mălaimare Jr and editor Tom Eagles, both of which can find some love from the guilds.
There aren’t any final decisions on which song will get the push by Netflix and Roc Nation, as there are 16 original tracks available for submission, but the Academy music branch has rules regarding how many names can be submitted per song (four) and the number of songs from a film (two). So tough decisions have to be made before the submission deadline on Nov. 1. You can hear some of the tracks in the film’s trailer, including the most prominent being “Guns Go Bang” (Kid Cudi and Jay-Z perform, and written by Samuel, Jay-Z and Kid Cudi) and “The Harder They Fall” (written by Samuel, Jay-Z and performed by Koffee).
An interesting note is Hova’s longtime wife Beyoncé is also in the Oscar race this year for her original song in Reinaldo Marcus Green’s “King Richard” (titled “Be Alive”). More than a dozen couples have been nominated the same year, for either the same film or separate, such as Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon (“Dead Man Walking”), but none have competed against one another. Noah Baumbach (“Marriage Story”) and Greta Gerwig (“Little Women”) nearly did in 2020, but were both snubbed for directing. Original song could become one of the hottest races in town if they are both recognized.