“While the events of this story are fictional … these. Humans. Existed.”
This statement is seen in the first few seconds by Netflix’s The harder they fall – a revolving, theft-heavy cowboy film by Jeymes Samuel, which introduces the masses to several black characters from the Old West, led by a star-studded, all-black primary cast, including Idris Elba, Jonathan Majors, Regina King, Lakeith Stanfield, Delroy Lindo and Zazie Beetz.
While film history includes a handful of black western films, classic American western films created a mythological wild west where minorities were either racially stereotyped or not seen at all – so it’s no wonder many fans and Hollywood notables watch The harder they fall as a breath of fresh air, and has given heaps of praise.
It also receives its fair share of criticism, in part for colorism, around the casting of fair-skinned Beetz as diligence Mary, who is believed to have been a dark-skinned woman. (Samuel had previously filmed a western in 2013 called They die at dawn, with Erykah Badu in the role of Mary.)
But it is also called out for another offense: the one about native “deletion.”
“It looks like casting director Victoria Thomas refused to cast a native for the film,” tweeted one user slamming the film to be released during Native American Heritage Month.
“Where are the natives? The harder they fall? Wasn’t the whole back story that the Rufus Buck gang was in Indian territory? noticed another Twitter user.
“Would have liked to have seen more historical accuracy regarding Idris Elba’s character,” someone added. “When you beat up Rufus Buck, you learn that he actually fought to push whites out of native territory.”
Some believe that the film missed out on a rare opportunity to showcase the common experiences of blacks and indigenous peoples in the Wild West, especially through the portrayal of Elba as Rufus Buck, a larger-than-life-mixed mixed race with Creek ancestors, whose self-name the gang was composed of Black and Creek Indian members. Further outrageous is that a non-black gang member of color in the film – a man named Cortez (played by Mexican American actor Julio César Cedillo) – meets an early end in the two-hour long film.
In fact, Samuel’s world, some say, is one that erases the characters’ native roots and the importance of black and native relationships in American history, all for creative freedom.
Netflix representatives had not responded to Yahoo Entertainment’s request for comment at the time of publication.
“Rufus Buck is half Indian,” said Robert Collins, associate professor of American Indian Studies at San Francisco State University and co-curator of the Smithsonian’s IndiVisible: Afro-Indians live in America, tells Yahoo Life. “His gang looked white, black and creek – and it gives you not only a sense of what they looked like, but also the dynamics of Creek Nation at the time. People in Native nations came in all guises, as in America – a small microcosm of the United States – and that’s something that is missing in the film. “
Collins adds that Buck and his crew were barely out of their teens when they did their misdeeds – a contrast from the “quiet”, older Buck as presented by Elba.
‘One of the things that raises is how much they could have told [Buck’s] history in accuracy, and that’s always been the big thing about American film, ”says Collins. “To what extent we are actually true to the story, and to what extent it is just an area for people to tell stories.
“But if we get caught up in it,” he continues, “we will miss the story that is being told that is relevant to Black America. And it has always been catch-22: How do we really explain what we do? “not socially accepted yet? We may not be able to reconcile our racial consciousness with what these people looked like.”
Native faces are rarely seen in movies and on TV shows, according to the 2020 Hollywood Diversity Report (the latest available) from the University of California Los Angeles. The report found that Indians accounted for only 0.3 percent of all top movie roles in 2018, followed by a slight increase to 0.5 percent in 2019. As for native directors and writers of top movies, the report indicated that there was 0 percent in 2018 and in 2019.
An October 2020 letter from the Writers Guild of America West’s Native American & Indigenous Writers Committee called Hollywood for its lack of representation.
“There are currently lead actors and regular series cast in Native American roles with no legitimate Native American background or heritage,” the letter reads. “This is because our industry’s top decision makers – other union writers, producers, study leaders – continue to overlook and ignore the hiring of native writers, instructors or producers who, by their very nature, come with an understanding of our society’s nuances, cultural protocols and have our exact representation in mind. “
Indigenous peoples are often left out of conversations about justice and inclusion, with Cree singer and icon Buffy Sainte-Marie recently telling Yahoo Life: “In BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, People of Color], sometimes the ‘self’ disappears.
But while Collins says critics are “spot on” for calling for a lack of representation for natives and other minorities, he wonders if these no-sayers understand the full breadth of their feelings.
“Do we know what African and Native American mixed blood actually looks like?” Collins wonders. “Not only in the past, but also in the present?”
He continues: “If we had cast people what they actually looked like, some African Americans would not feel a connection to these individuals.”
Collins stressed the need to take an “integrative approach to history” – to include all human history in the narrative.
“Chinese, Filipinos and a lot of people we see in black neighborhoods, they were in those cities too because they also faced a lot of that discrimination,” the teacher says. “That train track was built by a Chinese guy, so as not to have them in these cities that connected the railways … [is] kind of problematic … really problematic. “
But aside from inaccuracies, Collins – like so many others – still finds that he enjoys The harder they fall, even calls for a sequel in hopes that more of the whole story will be told.
“Always think [filmmakers are] feed yourself a big horse apple about history – and then go and find out about [they are] lying, ”he says. “This film should inspire us to look up who these people were and how they really lived – especially because of that disclaimer in the beginning.”