The Harder They Fall is a really good example of a thing that’s “for us” that’s not really… for all of us.
Cuffee (played by Danielle Deadwyler) is introduced as the bouncer to Stagechoach Mary’s (Zazie Beetz) saloon early on in the film. He’s small, quiet, and fast enough that before he takes someone down, you know he’s a force to be reckoned with. When he was first shown onscreen, he pinged my radar as “one of us, one of us” but the film more or less confirms his status as trans-masculine in the worst way possible: with the sort of transphobic “joke” reveal that trans people around the world generally agree isn’t acceptable.
Near the final arc of the film, Nat Love (Jonathan Majors) has to rob a bank in a white town in order to pay ransom to Rufus Buck (Idris Elba) and get Mary back. He needs an accomplice and everyone with him is both too dangerous and too recognizable to go into the white town…except for Cuffee. The reveal comes from the group in a clearing and Love tosses a bright red dress at Cuffee, showing that he knows what Cuffee “really” is and has the whole time. When Cuffee strips down in front of the group of cis men – which is a major no-no for this trope – Jim Beckwourth (RJ Cyler) comments, with relief in his voice as he stares and what’s implied to be Cuffee’s body nude from the waist down, that “I thought I was falling for a man”. (There’s some paraphrasing there because I’ve already passed that scene once and I won’t be looking back.)
While Cuffee in this film is, like many of the other characters in this film, based off of real people who existed, the liberties taken here are upsetting. The real Cuffee, Cathay Williams, supposedly hid her identity and enlisted under a different, male name. That’s completely different from Cuffee in The Harder They Fall, who’s shown living as a man in the film, not as a woman hiding her identity to enlist in the military or as a protective measure.
This isn’t the only frustrating aspect of The Harder They Fall – which is plagued by colorist casting (Zazie Beetz’s Mary looks nothing like the real Stagecoach Mary at any point of her life and that is because Mary is Love’s love interest while Trudy (Regina King) is mostly desexualized even though she is sort of Buck’s love interest), the absence of Black Natives in the cast, and just… no Natives period (the closest we come is Cherokee Bill and he also looks nothing like he did historically).
However, for me? It is the most frustrating.
Queer Black people are constantly told that we don’t belong in “real” Black spaces.
Queerness is seen as a “white people thing” even though queer Black people make up massive amounts of the queer communities here in the United States. It’s why Dave Chappelle’s whole thing is positioning queerness – and especially being trans – as something only white people do or claim to get out of criticism or to center themselves in conversations or spaces they don’t belong. To a lot of people in our communities, “real” Black people wouldn’t be queer or trans or, if we are, it’s an entire thing to make fun of and mock.
As a queer non-binary Black person, it’s frankly upsetting to be jolted out of this world, the fantasy of the Western (“but for Black people”) because the people working on this film just had to get in the dig. It just had to remind us of what they think we are and what they think falling for us would be like. It is so jarring, so painful to watch a movie like this where you’re vibing with the great soundtrack and on the side of the main characters for about two thirds of the film and then wham –
There comes the reminder that this isn’t for us either.
There comes the reminder that we aren’t “really” what we say we are/know ourselves to be.
Sorry not sorry to be so “sensitive” but… I grew up on Westerns. Sat at my daddy’s knee and watched all of the “greats” to the point where I had to actively unlearn what Westerns taught me about this country. I’m used to feeling like I don’t belong because the “Golden Age” of Westerns makes it clear that Black people didn’t belong and neither did Natives (outside of racist portrayals for us both). And now we have The Harder They Fall and while it does some solid, beautifully shot work to rectify the position of Black people in a history we were a part of, it does fuckall about other issues and even introduces new issues.
Because, like Nate Parker’s 2016 Birth of a Nation, this film is ultimately a fantasy of Black masculinity that doesn’t treat identity as intersectional at any level. Not for real.
This film is not accurate about what happened to any of those characters in history (half of those people lived pretty long, actually)… or about race back them – it’s really not. Even the dialogue is less accurate, more modern, than that of The Magnificent Seven with Denzel and them… And yet it chooses to be “historically accurate” about gender with what is a plainly transphobic reveal that turns Cuffee into a joke both in front of the “team” and then in front of bank tellers and clients at the white town.
Are you kidding me?
I’m so tired.