Emma Dabiri’s hidden histories: The Harder They Fall
"The film doesn’t engage with one of the main drivers behind the violence," writes Emma Dabiri
The recent Netflix movie The Harder They Fall – a black western, a rarity in the genre – tells a story featuring real-life characters including Rufus Buck and Cherokee Bill. Westerns almost universally depict cowboys and outlaws as white men, yet historians estimate that about 25 per cent were in fact African-Americans – including some of the most accomplished.
Set in an almost entirely black context and starring black actors such as Idris Elba and LaKeith Stanfield, the film doesn’t show the mixed ethnicity of the historical figures behind the main characters – many of whom had mixed African, European and Native American ancestry – nor the multi-“racial” society in which they lived.
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As such, the film doesn’t engage with one of the main drivers behind the violent rampage it references: the imminent absorption of Indian Territory into the ever-expanding US.
In the summer of 1895, in the Indian Territory that would shortly become the state of Oklahoma, a group of five teenage boys engaged in a two-week bout of robbery, rape and murder. Their leader, Rufus Buck, was – like most of the gang – of mixed African and Creek Indian heritage. Their attacks appalled local white settlers, Native Americans and African-American freedmen alike.
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Historians argue that the undoubtedly chilling and brutal violence wasn’t entirely random. By 1895, white people outnumbered Native Americans in Indian Territory, and the US government was rapidly absorbing that land for white settlement. Buck apparently harboured fantasies that his gang’s violence would incite a Native American uprising that would overrun the white settlers and eventually reclaim the whole territory. The author Leonce Gaiter, who has written extensively about Rufus Buck, says that “His dream was impossible, and he used the same violence to achieve it that he saw all around him.”
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The real Cherokee Bill (given name Crawford Goldsby), another character in The Harder They Fall, was also of mixed ancestry. His father, from Alabama, was of mixed heritage, while his mother was a Cherokee Freedwoman (one of the African-Americans who had been enslaved by the Cherokee before and after the removal of those Native Americans to Indian Territory, and who were emancipated after the Civil War. Many, including Bill’s mother, were of mixed ancestry.)
After a troubled and unstable childhood that included spells in the notoriously abusive Indian Boarding Schools – which operated on the principle: “Kill the Indian to save the man” – Goldsby graduated to a life of robbery and violent crime. The number of people he killed is uncertain, but estimates range from 7 to 13.
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Unlike in the movie, Rufus Buck and Cherokee Bill were never in the same gang, though they may have met at the Fort Smith Jail, just outside Indian Territory in Arkansas. They certainly met an almost identical fate: both were hanged for their crimes aged about 20.
Gaiter writes that situating these characters in an overwhelmingly black context “may serve the film’s purposes, but it strips Buck of his backstory. Ditto for removing him from Indian Territory. Most significantly, the movie omits Buck’s stated mission – the cleansing of whites from Indian Territory,” Gaiter adds. “He had lived his life there, and… was reportedly fascinated by
pulp pamphlet tales of black and Indian outlaws. The characters in these were ‘free’ to do as they pleased, and took no guff from anyone – critical to a youth attending a mission school that punished him for speaking his native Creek language. His very exposure to the white world drove Rufus Buck.”
Films are not documentaries, and their purpose is obviously not historical accuracy. And, though based only loosely on “truth”, the movie has undoubtedly introduced to a much wider audience a chapter of history that is little known and rarely spoken about.
This article was first published in the February 2022 issue of BBC History Magazine