Last week, Netflix released the movie “The Harder They Fall” on its streaming platform. Directed by Jeymes Samuel, it is a fictional western which features historical black characters generally excluded from the genre. As the film sheds light on the history of black cowboys in this country, it succumbs to Hollywood’s biggest casting problem: colorism.
The main set of the film is made up of all-black actors, the majority of whom are household names in their own right. Idris Elba, Regina King, Zazie Beetz, Lakeith Stanfield, Jonathan Major, and Delroy Lindo all play major roles, and each corresponds to a real person historically known or associated with the Old West.
These historical figures include Nat Love (Jonathan Majors), Rufus Buck (Idris Elba), Stagecoach Mary (Zazie Beetz), Treacherous Trudy (Regina King), Cathay “Cuffee” Williams (Danielle Deadwyler), Cherokee Bill (Lakeith Stanfield), Bass Reeves (Delroy Lindo), Bill Pickett (Edi Gathegi) and Jim Beckworth (RJ Cyler).
While these characters have existed in different places and in different times, they are linked to each other through this story. The historic whiteness of westerns makes their inclusion so much more meaningful.
Samuel, who also co-wrote the screenplay, resisted the film being viewed as a “Black Western,” insisting that he created a world in which these characters live. But their absence from westerns more broadly demonstrates just how white the genre is and how blacks have been systematically forgotten in this history.
Rather than taking a historically accurate and neat autobiographical perspective, the film creates a narrative that honors these people and helps to remember them and their stories.
While this aspect of the film is its strength, in addition to the superb acting and brilliant soundtrack, one weakness is the cast of Stagecoach Mary – which aligns with a bigger colorism role model in the cast.
Stagecoach Mary, born Mary Fields in 1832, was a slave woman from Hickman Country, Tennessee. After the Civil War, Fields found himself in Ohio as a gardener in a convent.
His habit of wearing men’s clothes, smoking, drinking and shooting with weapons caused him to be expelled from the same convent. His fame came in 1895 due to his work as a road hauler who transported mail using a stagecoach, protected it from thieves, and delivered it. She was the first African American woman to hold this position.
Although Zazie Beetz’s character does not share the same story, she does share a similar personality and attitude. The biggest problem with her portrayal is that Mary Field was a tall, dark-skinned woman – and Beetz is not.
A 2021 report on portrayals of black women in Hollywood concluded that there is a strong prejudice against black women who conform to white beauty standards. The report, conducted by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, found that nearly 80 percent of black female characters have light or medium skin tones, a trend consistent with colorism that discriminates against skin tones. darker.
And colorism is not only a problem for black women, but has been prevalent in other representations of non-white ethnic groups. “Crazy Rich Asians” (2018) and “In the Heights” (2021), two films that centralize Asian and Latino narratives, have been criticized for their lack of diversity in skin tones and for only casting actors with hues clearer.
Charlene Regester, of the African American and Diaspora Studies Department at UNC, studied noir cinema before the 1960s and spoke with The Daily Tar Heel about the sensitivity around colorism and representation in the film, especially those that tell the story of marginalized groups.
“Because these films are more available and designed to appeal to certain segments of the population, we as consumers, viewers and viewers are critical of how these performances reflect or do not reflect who we really are,” Regester said. . “Especially considering the power that these images gave to circulate around the world. ”
What makes the casting choices so disturbing in this case is that there was a historical figure referenced. Unlike the entirely fictional characters, there was a phenotypic pattern to follow. Having a lighter-skinned actress play Stagecoach Mary was a serious misstep that could have been easily avoided.
A similar controversy occurred with the biopic of Nina Simone, which was played by Zoe Saldana. Saldana, who was expected to wear a prosthetic nose and skin-darkening makeup, later apologized for playing the role.
Finding an experienced actor who closely resembles the historical figures they portray is not too difficult for a feature film produced by a big platform like Netflix. Changing Stagecoach Mary’s complexion and body type to conform to white beauty standards speaks volumes, especially since Mary is the protagonist’s love interest. There are many actresses with similar phenotypic characteristics who would have performed the role just as well.
“The Harder They Fall” is a great movie that highlights an important and under-represented part of our country’s history. We should be able to celebrate this work of art while remaining critical of its flaws, especially those that play on the nefarious trends in colourism and representational fatphobia that plague the industry.
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