Last week, Netflix released the film, "The Harder They Fall" on its streaming platform. Directed by Jeymes Samuel, it is a fictional Western that portrays historical Black figures typically left out of the genre. While the movie highlights the history of Black cowboys in this country, it succumbs to Hollywood’s major problem in casting: colorism.
The movie’s main ensemble is made of all-Black actors, the majority of which 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 Wild 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 figures existed in different places and at different times, they are strung together through this story. The historical whiteness of Westerns makes their inclusion so much more significant.
Samuel, who also co-wrote the screenplay, has resisted the movie being written off as a “Black Western,” insisting that he created a world where these characters live. But their absence from Westerns more broadly demonstrates how white the genre is and how Black people have been systemically forgotten from this history.
Rather than taking an autobiographical perspective that is historically accurate and neat, the movie creates a narrative that honors these individuals and allows them and their stories to be remembered.
While this aspect of the film constitutes its strength, in addition to the superb acting and brilliant soundtrack, a weakness is the casting of Stagecoach Mary — which aligns with a larger pattern of colorism in casting.
Stagecoach Mary, born Mary Fields in 1832, was an enslaved woman from Hickman Country, Tennessee. After the Civil War, Fields ended up in Ohio working as a groundskeeper at a convent.
Her habit of wearing men's clothes, smoking, drinking and shooting guns got her kicked out of that very convent. Her claim to fame came in 1895 due to her job as a route carrier that carried mail using a stagecoach, protecting it from thieves and delivering it. She was the first African American woman to serve in this position.
Although Zazie Beetz’s character does not share the same backstory, she shares a similar persona and attitude. The biggest snag in her representation is that Mary Field was a plus-size woman of a dark skin tone — and Beetz is not.
A 2021 report on representations of Black women in Hollywood concluded that strong bias exists toward Black women who conform to white standards of beauty. 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 darker skin tones.
And colorism is not only an issue 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, were criticized for their lack of diversity in skin tones and only casting actors of lighter hues.
Charlene Regester, of UNC’s African American and Diaspora Studies department, studies Black film before the 1960s, and spoke with The Daily Tar Heel about the sensitivity around colorism and representation in film — specifically 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, spectators and viewers, are critical of how these representations reflect or don’t reflect who we really are,” Regester said. “Particularly given the power that these images have given that they circulate throughout the world.”
What makes the casting choices so troubling in this instance is that there was a historical figure being referenced. Unlike entirely fictional characters, there was a phenotypic template to be followed. Having Stagecoach Mary be played by an actress with a lighter skin tone was a gross misstep that could have been easily avoided.
A similar controversy occurred with the biopic of Nina Simone, who was played by Zoe Saldana. Saldana, who had to wear a prosthetic nose and skin-darkening makeup, later apologized for playing the role.
Finding an experienced actor that closely resembles the historical figures they portray is not too much of a tall order for a feature film produced by a large platform like Netflix. Changing Stagecoach Mary's skin tone and body type to conform to white beauty standards says a lot, especially given that Mary is the love interest of the protagonist. There are numerous actresses with similar phenotypic characteristics that would have executed the role just as well.
"The Harder They Fall" is a great movie that highlights an important and underrepresented part of our country’s history. We should be able to celebrate this piece of art while remaining critical of its flaws, especially those that play into harmful trends of colorism and fatphobia in representation that plague the industry.
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