The Harder They Fall: the real cowboys who inspired the black Western

As a new blockbuster western directed by Jeymes Samuel arrives in cinemas and on Netflix, historian Tony Warner introduces some of the real figures who inspired the action, and explores the wider history of black cowboys on screen…

Zazie Beetz and Jonathan Majors in the Netflix film The Harder They Fall

In a post-George Floyd environment, a movie with an all-black ensemble cast set in the Wild West will have a certain appeal and resonance. With slick visuals, exciting action sequences and a stellar ensemble cast, viewers are sure to enjoy the stylish spectacle as Nat Love (Jonathan Majors) seeks revenge on Rufus Buck (Idris Elba), and bloody chaos ensues as the two gangs meet to settle old scores,

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However, it may surprise many to know that ­The Harder They Fall features real historical facts that maybe dismissed as dramatic invention by those not familiar with the history. In fact, one in four cowboys was black, and though the plot of the movie is fictional, many of the names seen on screen existed.


Listen: Tony Warner discusses some of the real historical figures depicted in the new Netflix western The Harder They Fall, on this episode of the HistoryExtra podcast:


Who are the real figures on screen?

Bass Reeves (played by Delroy Lindo) is a real African-American legend. Born in 1838, Reeves was involved in the American Civil War of 1861–65, a conflict that led to the abolition of US slavery. As a runaway slave he found refuge with Native Americans and learned their languages and culture. He later became the first black deputy US Marshal. Using his sharpshooter skills, and detailed knowledge of Native American lands and customs, he tracked down and arrested more than 3,000 criminals who had fled to lawless, frontier areas. He’s known to have shot and killed 14 outlaws who refused to be arrested and survived numerous attempts on his own life.

US Marshal Bass Reeves
Bass Reeves is a real African-American legend, says Tony Warner. (Image by Wikimedia Commons)

Reeves is also alleged to be the real inspiration behind the character of the Lone Ranger, most famously depicted in a 1940s and 50s TV show of the same name. That said, the Lone Ranger has broadly been portrayed as a white figure, and recently a film starring Armie Hammer as the title character attracted criticism for its lack of diversity in casting. But Reeves might still take centre stage; presently, the Oscar-winning Chloé Zhao (director of Nomadland and Marvel’s Eternals) is associated with a Bass Reeves film project.

Cherokee Bill (LaKeith Stanfield) was a real notorious outlaw and greatly feared for his string of robberies and murders. Born in 1876 as Crawford Goldsby, Bill was of African and Native American descent and grew up in Indian Territory. His father George was a member of the famed US Tenth Cavalry, a unit of predominantly Black troops better known as the Buffalo Soldiers, referenced in Bob Marley’s 1984 song of the same name.

Bill Pickett (Edi Gathegi) has an incredible background story. Born in 1870, just five years after the American Civil War ended, he was an expert practitioner of ‘bulldogging’ – a term for the practice of subduing fully grown cows, which can weigh up to 1,000lbs. One of his many achievements is that he pioneered the tactic of biting them on the lip with his teeth and wrestling them to the ground. Pickett was also a real-life rodeo champion; known for his horse-riding skills, he toured the country with his own show.

Cowboy Bill Pickett in a black-and-white photo
Cowboy Bill Pickett has an incredible background story. (Image by Wiki Commons)

In 1921 he starred in a movie about himself, titled The Bull-Dogger, produced by Norman Films. Norman Films also produced The Crimson Skull (1922), a black western love story, which also featured Pickett. At this time American cinemas were still segregated and black people in mainstream movies were routinely portrayed as savages or servants, so having heroic black cowboys on screen was a significant achievement. The Bill Picket Invitational Rodeo, which features black cowboys and cowgirls, still tours the USA today.

These are just three of the real figures who appear in The Harder They Fall; the characters of Nat Love (sometimes known as Nate), Rufus Buck and Stagecoach Mary ­are all drawn from the names of real figures. The latter, born Mary Fields, was the first African American woman to serve as a mail carrier, and is surely another story ripe for dramatizing on screen.

Representing real black history

With The Harder They Fall, director Jeymes Samuel joins an honour roll of those who have used westerns to tell exciting stories while also representing real black history. But his work also continues that set by earlier artists.

Cowboy Bill Pickett, photographed on horseback
Bill Pickett was an expert practitioner of ‘bulldogging’ – a term for the practice of subduing fully grown cows. (Image by Getty Images)

In 1972, Oscar winner Sidney Poitier directed and starred in Buck and the Preacher alongside his best friend, Harry Belafonte. The pairing alone is significant, as they were the biggest black stars of the time. The simple plot, revolving around African Americans trying to flee the racism of post-civil war Southern states while groups of white vigilantes chase and try to force them back, was based on real events. Black groups, known as Exodusters, really did try to escape the South and set up societies beyond white control. What was first seen as a typical western can easily be viewed as a metaphor for civil rights: Poitier and Belafonte were major backers of the US Civil Rights movements and marched with Martin Luther King.

Sidney Poitier (r) and Harry Belafonte in 'Buck and the Preacher'
Sidney Poitier (R) and Harry Belafonte in 1972 film ‘Buck and the Preacher’. (Photo by FilmPublicityArchive/United Archives via Getty Images)

A later film, Django Unchained (2012) also gives us a window into the real history of Black Americans of the era. Its central conceit is a love story between Django (Jamie Foxx) and Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), his kidnapped wife, and Django’s mission to rescue her. There is actual evidence of this type of event being planned: Dangerfield Newby was a free black man who took part in the famous Harpers Ferry raid, and was killed fighting for freedom in 1859. On his body was a letter from his enslaved wife who was asking him to rescue her from her new master who planned to sell her. According to his son, Newby was “coming back to buy the freedom of his wife and two or three young ones when they killed him”.

In Django Unchained, we see the enslaved Broomhilda offered as nocturnal entertainment to Christoph Waltz’s passing guest. Sending enslaved black women and girls to visiting strangers was typical, daily practice in slave societies throughout the Caribbean islands and the Americas in the 1800s.

Drawing on previous films’ social commentary and with its inclusion of real historical touchstones, how the film will resonate with audiences is to be seen. But what’s certain is that The Harder They Fall already has a wagon train full of inspirational, real black history heroes.

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Tony Warner is an expert on black westerns and a historian who runs Black History Walks in London. The Harder They Fall is in cinemas now and on Netflix from 3 November 2021