Sweet Hats, Plenty of Cattle

The Harder They Fall

by George Wolf

Who doesn’t love a good Western?

If you’re the one, I’ve got two reasons not to saddle up with The Harder They Fall.

  1. It’s a Western
  2. It’s good

Ruthless Rufus Buck (Idris Elba) is getting out of jail, and that’s mighty interesting news to Nat Love (Jonathan Majors), who has no love for Rufus.

Nat has a serious score to settle, so he re-assembles his old gang, led by sharpshooter Bill Pickett (Edi Gathegi), and sets out on horseback. Along the way, Nat rekindles a flame with saloon owner Stagecoach Mary (Zazie Beetz) and earns the trust of Mary’s silent-but-deadly bodyguard Cuffie (Danielle Deadwyler).

And even though Nat is a wanted man, Marshall Bass Reeves (Delroy Lindo) decides he’d rather be on the team that finally takes Buck down.

But Rufus has some pretty solid support in his corner, too. Treacherous Trudy Smith (Regina King) speaks softly but shows no mercy, while quick draw legend Cherokee Bill (LaKeith Stanfield) leads a posse of men helping Rufus kick Sherrif Wiley Escoe (Deon Cole) out of Redwood and take over the town.

And that town ain’t big enough for both Buck and Love.

Director and co-writer Jeymes Samuel (aka The Bullitts) plants his flag early, with onscreen text telling us that he may not be telling a true story, but these people did exist. So while you may be reminded of Tarantino (or his many shared influences), this film’s history isn’t alternative. Samuel and his committed ensemble are here to remind us that it’s the whitewashed Hollywood version of the Old West that’s fiction.

Yes, these dusty roads are well traveled and the dialog can be a bit musty (“love is the only thing worth dying for…”), but there’s so much stylish bloodshed, gallows humor and terrific acting in every frame that the film wins you over on pure entertainment value alone.

Plus, it looks fantastic. Samuel frames the landscape with gorgeous panoramas, while wrapping some nimble camera movements and pulsing rhythms around those steely stare downs, frantic shoot ’em ups, freshly-pressed hats and dusters and plenty of other delicious period details.

The Harder They Fall is big, bold, visionary fun. It takes characters, races and lifestyles that have been hijacked by history and reclaims them all with the brashness of an early morning bank job.

This crew ain’t shootin’ blanks, and they rarely miss.

Voices of Experience

If Beale Street Could Talk

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

Writer/director Barry Jenkins follows up his 2016 Oscar-winning masterpiece of a debut, Moonlight, with the ambitious goal of translating the work of a beautifully complex writer to a cinematic narrative. By respecting the material with a stirring commitment to character, If Beale Street Could Talk meets that goal with grace.

Based on the novel by James Baldwin (and the first English-language adaptation of his fiction), the film follows a struggling couple as a means to illustrate the intersecting forms of oppression facing African Americans.

Tish (KiKi Layne in an impressive feature debut) and “Fonny” (Stephan James, from Selma and Race) are a young couple in Harlem who embraces their unexpected pregnancy while struggling to prove Fonny’s innocence in a rape case.

As the surface tension is driven by the potentially dangerous chances Kiki’s mother (Regina King) takes to clear Fonny’s name, smaller, more quiet moments around the neighborhood cement Baldwin’s incisive take on what it means to be black in America.

Baldwin’s writing – a mix of brutal honesty, brilliant clarity and weary outrage – is understandably daunting as a film adaptation. Themes which breathe with life on the page can come to the screen in an awkward rush and land as heavy handed melodrama.

Jenkins, whose early script got the blessing of Baldwin’s estate even before the triumph of Moonlight, brings an elegance to the story which fits comfortably. A poetic camera, authentic characters and tender, fully realized performances—especially from the glorious King—weave together to sing the praises of Baldwin’s prose in hypnotic, and often heartbreaking fashion.

Amid a story of grim realities and American resilience lie bonds of love and family that the film never loses sight of, even in its most sober moments, which may be the most miraculous aspect of If Beale Street Could Talk.

It is a film without illusions, but one that carries the unbowed spirit of its characters on a deeply felt journey that honors its origins.