Review: ‘I Saw the TV Glow,’ starring Justice Smith, Brigette Lundy-Paine, Ian Foreman, Helena Howard, Fred Durst and Danielle Deadwyler

May 3, 2024

by Carla Hay

Justice Smith and Brigette Lundy-Paine in “I Saw the TV Glow” (Photo courtesy of A24)

“I Saw the TV Glow”

Directed by Jane Schoenbrun

Culture Representation: Taking place from 1996 to 2004, in an unnamed U.S. state, the dramatic film “I Saw the TV Glow” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A lonely teenage boy befriends a teenage girl, who gets him hooked on a fantasy TV series starring young people battling a villain named Mr. Melancholy, and the show affects what happens to them as they get older. 

Culture Audience: “I Saw the TV Glow” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the movie’s headliners and are interested in watching symbolic-heavy movies about depression and queerness.

Ian Foreman in “I Saw the TV Glow” (Photo by Spencer Pazer/A24)

“I Saw the TV Glow” isn’t as scary as it seems, but it’s a very original film about obsessive escapism and denial of one’s true identity. The plot has more mystery than suspense. Viewers must be willing to interpret the movie’s LGBTQ symbolism. “I Saw the TV Glow” had its world premiere at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival and later screened at the 2024 Berlin International Film Festival and 2024 SXSW Film and TV Festival.

Written and directed by Jane Schoenbrun, “I Saw the TV Glow” explores themes about depression and queerness that are presented in ways that might be too abstract for viewers. “I Saw the TV Glow” has been described as a horror movie, but it’s really a psychological drama. There are a few brief horror-like images, in addition to one scene where someone has a mental breakdown. That does not make it a horror movie.

“I Saw the TV Glow,” which is told in chronological order, takes place from 1996 to 2004, in an unnamed U.S. state. (The movie was actually filmed in New Jersey.) “I Saw the TV Glow” begins by showing clips from a U.S. TV network called the Young Adult Network, which has a combination of original and acquired programming. One of the network’s more popular original shows is a weekly fantasy series called “The Pink Opaque,” which is set in America in whatever year that the show is on the air. “I Saw the TV Glow” pokes some fun at 1990s television, music and fashion in clips of “The Pink Opaque.”

It’s later explained in the movie that “The Pink Opaque” (and the show’s title characters) are two American teenage best friends named Isabel (played by Helena Howard) and Tara (played by Lindsey Jordan), who live in a typical suburban area but live secret lives where they battle a demonic force called Mr. Melancholy (played by Emma Portner), the show’s chief villain who gives Isabel and Tara an obstacle in each episode. Isabel is the more prominent person of this teenage duo. She is described as an “expert in demonology.”

In “I Saw the TV Glow,” the protagonist and narrator is shy and quiet Owen (played by Justice Smith), who narrates the movie in hindsight as an older teenager and as an adult. Sometimes, he talks directly to the camera during his narration. Sometimes, Owen’s narration is a voiceover. The movie also has captions spelled out in handwritten pink letters.

When Owen is first seen in the movie, he is a seventh grader (about 12 or 13 years old) and played by Ian Foreman. It’s during this period of time that Owen meets someone who will change his life. Seventh grader Owen is shown accompanying his mother Brenda (played by Danielle Deadwyler) to a polling place on Election Day. The polling station is in a gym of a local high school where Owen will be a student in two years. Brenda takes Owen into the voting booth with her and shows him how to vote.

It’s at this gym where Owen meets sarcastic Maddie Wilson (played by Brigette Lundy-Paine), who is a ninth grader (freshman), about 14 years old, at the high school. Maddie is sitting on the gym floor, reading a book about episodes of “The Pink Opaque.” Owen soon finds out that Maddie is an obsessive fan of “The Pink Opaque,” which airs on Tuesdays from 10:30 p.m. to 11 p.m. in the time zone where Maddie and Owen live.

Owen and Maddie start talking about “The Pink Opaque,” a show that Owen has not seen at this point because he’s not allowed to stay up past 10 p.m., especially on a school night. Owen (who is an only child) lives with his married parents in a stable, loving and middle-class home. His father Frank (played by Fred Durst) is not as close to Owen as Brenda is.

Maddie tells Owen that she and her best friend Amanda (also played by Portner) watch “The Pink Opaque” together at Maddie’s place. Maddie invites Owen to join them and suggests that Owen lie to his parents by saying he’s spending the night at a male friend’s house. Owen takes that advice and sneaks over to Maddie’s place to watch “The Pink Opaque” for the first time (in a basement room), as Maddie explains the complex world building that the show has. Maddie later tells Owen, “Sometimes, ‘The Pink Opaque’ feels more real than real life.”

Maddie’s parents are never shown in the movie. However, Maddie mentions that her parents “don’t give a crap” when she goes to bed. She also says that she has an abusive stepfather. When Owen spends the night at Maddie’s place for the first time, he has to sleep in the basement. Maddie tells Owen that Owen has to leave by dawn because if Maddie’s stepfather sees Owen there, “he’ll break my nose again.”

After Amanda has left for the night, Maddie also tells Owen that Maddie thinks Isabel from “The Pink Opaque” is “super-hot,” and Maddie “likes girls.” Owen doesn’t have any reaction to Maddie telling him that she’s a lesbian, but he does get confused when she asks him if he likes boys or girls. He tells her he doesn’t know but he knows he likes “The Pink Opaque.” When Owen is a teenager, he mentions “The Pink Opaque” to his father Frank, who replies, “Isn’t that a girl’s show?”

Owen explains in a voiceover that over the next two years, Maddie gave VHS tapes of “The Pink Opaque” episodes to Owen so he could watch the show without having to stay up past his bedtime. However, Owen and Maddie don’t become close friends until 1998, when Owen (played by Smith) is a freshman (about 14 years old) in the same high school where Maddie is now a junior (about 16 years old) and is now a loner at the school.

Maddie and Owen reconnect at her place to watch “The Pink Opaque” together. It’s during this reconnection that Owen finds out that Maddie and Amanda stopped being friends about two years earlier because Amanda told people that Maddie touched Amanda’s breast without Amanda’s consent. Maddie denies this sexual harassment happened but she was then shunned by many people because Maddie was “outed” as a lesbian. Maddie is still bitter over how the friendship ended and also seems angry that Amanda would rather spend time on the cheerleader squad than watch “The Pink Opaque.”

The rest of “I Saw the TV Glow” is about how Owen’s friendship with Maddie and how their fixation with “The Pink Opaque” affects their lives. Without giving away too much information, the movie is full of metaphors and symbolism of Owen’s self-discovery of his sexuality, even though he is not shown dating anyone in the movie. There’s a scene early on in the film of seventh grader Owen in an inflatable planetarium that has colors reminiscent of the LGBTQ Pride flag.

“I Can See the TV Glow” has some scenes that go on for a little too long. For example, there’s a nightclub sequence that starts to look like a music video because it shows the full song performance of rock band Sloppy Jane. Better editing was needed for this scene because it doesn’t fit the flow of a conversation that Owen and Maddie are having in a nearby room at the nightclub.

“I Saw the TV Glow” might get some comparisons to Schoenbrun’s 2022 feature-film debut “We’re All Going to the World’s Fair,” another psychological drama (with some horror elements) about a teenage loner who gets caught up in something on screen that becomes dangerous. “I Saw the TV Glow” obviously has a bigger production budget and a larger, more well-known cast than “We’re All Going to the World’s Fair.” However, “I Saw the TV Glow” has a more abstract plot than “We’re All Going to the World’s Fair.” Some viewers will be puzzled over what “I Saw the TV Glow” is trying to say.

In the role of Owen, Smith is once again doing a character who is whiny, insecure and often looking like he’s confused or about to cry. Owen is not a bad person, but he can be annoying. Lundy-Paine gives a better performance as Maddie, but there comes a point in the movie where Maddie’s personality becomes almost numb, so the movie loses a lot of Maddie’s initial spark and charisma. “I Saw the TV Glow” can be recommended to people who don’t mind watching offbeat movies with a unique vision and a heavily symbolic story about how secrets and lies can kill a soul.

A24 released “I Saw the TV Glow” in select U.S. cinemas on May 3, 2024, with an expansion to more U.S. cinemas on May 17, 2024.

Review: ‘Till,’ starring Danielle Deadwyler, Jalyn Hall, Frankie Faison, Haley Bennett and Whoopi Goldberg

October 2, 2022

by Carla Hay

Jalyn Hall and Danielle Deadwyler in “Till” (Photo by Lynsey Weatherspoon/Orion Pictures)

“Till”

Directed by Chinonye Chukwu

Culture Representation: Taking place in 1955 in Illinois and Mississippi, the dramatic film “Till” features a predominantly African American cast of characters (with some white people) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: After her 14-year-old son (and only child) Emmett Till is murdered in a racist hate crime, Mamie Till-Mobley fights for justice in a system where white supremacy is enabled and enforced. 

Culture Audience: “Till” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of stars Danielle Deadwyler and Whoopi Goldberg, as well as to people who are interested in well-acted biographical stories about the civil rights movement in the United States.

Danielle Deadwyler and Whoopi Goldberg in “Till” (Photo by Lynsey Weatherspoon/Orion Pictures)

The heartbreaking and inspiring drama “Till” admirably tells the true story of Mamie Till-Mobley and how she not only fought for justice for her murdered son, Emmett Till, but also how she became an often-overlooked pioneer in the U.S. civil rights movement. Even though the events in “Till” take place in the 1955, everything about the movie remains relevant, as long as people are getting murdered, abused or harassed simply because of race or other parts of their identities. Danielle Deadwyler gives a stunning and emotionally stirring performance as a humble woman who channeled her grief over her murdered son (who was beaten, shot and lynched) into positive activism that has far-reaching effects that can be felt for years to come.

Directed by Chinonye Chukwu, “Till” could have easily been yet another civil rights movie about a crusading lawyer, a law-making politician, a famous activist with a large following, or a hate-crime victim. And although these characters are definitely in “Till,” all of these characters in this history-based movie are male. It’s rare that a movie about the U.S. civil rights movement focuses on an African American woman, even though African American women have been the backbone of many important social movements in the United States.

“Till” had its world premiere at the 2022 New York Film Festival in New York City. At the New York Film Festival’s “Till” press conference, which took place on the morning of the gala premiere, filmmaker Chukwu said that she didn’t want to direct the movie unless it centered on Till-Mobley. The movie’s producers agreed, and Chukwu presented her vision of the story, which included a rewrite of the screenplay to focus on Till-Mobley’s perspective. (Chukwu co-wrote the “Till” screenplay with Keith Beauchamp and Michael Reilly, two of the movie’s producers.)

It turned out to be the correct decision. One of Chukwu’s strengths as a director is in making great casting choices. Deadwyler, in the role of Till-Mobley, anchors the movie in a way that is the epitome of portraying inner strength and an ordinary person who becomes an extraordinary catalyst for social change. The movie also shows in subtle and not-so-subtle ways how grief and pain can be turned into something positive that becomes much bigger than being about just one person.

Many people watching “Till” might already be familiar with the name Emmett “Bo” Till and might already be aware of how the racist torture and murder of this innocent 14-year-old boy in 1955 was a turning point in the U.S. civil rights movement. The movie “Till” brings him to life in the performance of Jalyn Hall, who depicts Emmett as an outgoing and fun-loving teenager who liked to hang out with his friends and occasionally flirted with girls who caught his attention. People who know Emmett very well usually call him by his nickname Bo.

Born in 1941 in Chicago, Emmett was raised in Chicago, where his mother Mamie worked as an educator. Emmett was Mamie’s only child. In 1945, Emmett’s military father, Louis Till, died at the age of 23 in combat during World War II. Mamie then had a short-lived marriage (lasting from 1951 to 1952) to Pink Bradley, with the marriage ending in divorce. Mamie grew up in her home state of Mississippi but had relocated to Chicago in search of better work opportunities and a less oppressive racial environment.

That doesn’t mean racially integrated Chicago or anywhere is immune to racism. An early scene in “Till” shows Mamie shopping in a Chicago department store and asking a white store clerk about an item. The store clerk suggests to her that she shop in the basement, which was his way of saying that he didn’t want black customers to be shopping in the store’s main area.

With her head held high, Mamie looks him in the eye and calmly asks him, “Do the other customers know that too?” In other words, “Are you telling the white customers the same thing? Probably not.” It’s the first sign in the movie that Mamie is not going to play the role of a head-bowing, foot-shuffling servant, and that she can stand up for herself with intelligence and class.

In 1955, Mamie was in a happy and supportive relationship with Gene Mobley (played by Sean Patrick Thomas), who would eventually become her husband. Gene would become one of strongest sources of support during the family’s ordeal. Mamie and Gene didn’t legally marry until 1957 (two years after Emmett’s death), but they referred to each other as spouses, in a common-law way.

In August 1955, Mamie allowed Emmett to visit some of her relatives near Money, Mississippi, as part of his summer vacation. In the movie, perhaps out of a maternal instinct and concern, Mamie is apprehensive about sending Emmett to Mississippi by train on his own. At a time when racial segregation was legal and enforced in the South, she warns him that that “there are a different set of rules” for people who aren’t white in the South.

Emmett thinks that Mamie is being overprotective and maybe paranoid. Mamie’s mother Alma Carthan (played by Whoopi Goldberg) thinks so too. Alma tells Mamie that it’s time that Emmett be more independent since he’s close to being an adult and has to learn how to do things on his own. While Mamie says goodbye to Emmett the train station and he boards the train, she has a sudden look of fear on her face, which could be interpreted as a premonition that something terrible might happen to Emmett.

In Mississippi, Emmett stays with the Wright family, who are relatives on his mother’s side of the family. They include Emmett’s great-uncle Moses Wright (played by John Douglas Thompson); Moses’ wife Elizabeth (played by Keisha Tillis); and their son Maurice (played by Diallo Thompson). Moses makes money as a seller of cotton, and he oversees other African American men who pick cotton in the fields.

Emmett is expected to help out with this field work while he’s in Mississippi, but a city boy like Emmett immediately dislikes this type of physical labor. In the cotton fields, Emmett complains that picking cotton is a “square thing to do” (in other words, it’s too “country” for him), and he doesn’t take the work seriously. Instead, he sometimes goofs off on the job, such as pretending to pass out and getting a laugh when he reveals that nothing is wrong with him. It’s an example of Emmett’s impish sense of humor but also his naïveté at how different the lifestyle is for his working-class relatives in rural Mississippi, compared to the middle-class lifestyle he has in a big city like Chicago.

Maurice, who is in his late teens or early 20s, is a stern taskmaster who constantly warns Emmett not to be so cavalier about work and being an African American in an area where African Americans are targeted for lynchings and other hate crimes by white racists. During his stay in Mississippi, Emmett hangs out with Maurice and two of Maurice’s teenage pals who also work in the cotton fields: Wheeler Parker (played by Gem Marc Collins, also known as Marc Collins) and Simmy (played by Tyrik Johnson). Maurice is the unofficial leader of this group of friends.

When Emmett playfully flirts with some white teenage girls nearby, Maurice tells Emmett that he better not act that way with any white people, or else he could be killed. Emmett doesn’t take this warning seriously, because in his young life, he has personally never known anyone who was killed because of racist hate. And in Chicago, it’s not taboo for black people and white people to interact with each other.

One day, when Emmett, Maurice, Wheeler and Simmy have some time off from work, they hang out in front of a small grocery store. Emmett goes inside to buy a bottle of soda. The cashier behind the counter is Mrs. Carolyn Bryant (played by Haley Bennett), a white woman in her late 20s or early 30s. Emmett is friendly and open with everyone he meets, so he greets Carolyn with a smile and looks directly in her eyes.

In this racist area, where a black person is expected to act fearful and deferential toward white people, Emmett’s friendly confidence immediately makes Carolyn fill uneasy. She glares at him suspiciously has he pays for his soda. Emmett then tells her as a compliment, “You look like a movie star.”

Carolyn stares at him as if she can’t believe a black person is talking to her in this way. Emmett is oblivious to her silent hostility and takes his wallet and shows her a photo of actress Hedy Lamarr that he keeps in his wallet. “See?” Emmett says to Carolyn, as a way to point her physical resemblance. Carolyn looks even angrier, but Emmett doesn’t seem to notice.

Instead, Emmett cheerfully waves goodbye. And as if to make it clear that he thinks that Carolyn is pretty, she looks back at her and gives a flirtatious whistle. Carolyn is so incensed at this point, she leaves the counter to get a shotgun, which she plans to aim at Emmett. When Emmett sees that he could get shot but this angry racist, he suddenly understands the enormity of the situation.

Emmett runs outside while Carolyn follows him with the shotgun in aimed at him. Emmett and his pals quickly get in their truck and drive away before the situation escalates. Maurice is furious when he finds out what Emmett said and did. Maurice immediately wants to tell his father what happened, but Wheeler and Simmy convince Maurice to keep it a secret between the four of them.

However, this incident isn’t kept a secret by Carolyn. A few days later, her husband Roy Bryant (played by Sean Michael Weber) and his half-brother JW Milam (played by Eric Whitten) force their way with guns into the Wright family home, kidnap Emmett, and take him in their truck, where Carolyn and a few other men have come along for the ride. After Carolyn identifies Emmett as the teenager who flirted with her, Emmett is taken to an isolated farm area.

“Till” does not show on screen what happened to Emmett after he was kidnapped, but the movie does have some disturbing sound effects that don’t leave any doubt that he was tortured and beaten. At the New York Film Festival press conference for “Till,” Chukwu said she made a conscious decision for the movie not to show any physical violence against “black bodies.” It was the correct choice, because showing this type of violence could be thought of as exploitation and gives too much agency to the murderers.

Mamie finds out that Emmett has been kidnapped. Friends, family—including Mamie’s father, John Carthan (played by Frankie Faison), who is divorced from Alma and has remarried—as well as other people in the African American community join Mamie in their frantic search for Emmet. And then, they get the devastating news three days after his abduction that Emmett was found murdered (he was beaten and shot to death) in the Tallahatchie River. These scenes are heart-wrenching to watch.

Overwhelmed by grief, Mamie’s first priority was to get Emmett’s body returned to her so that he could be buried in Chicago. She wasn’t thinking about becoming an activist. But after seeing his disfigured and bloated body (which is replicated on screen), Mamie makes a crucial decision to let Emmett’s body be photographed and published by the media.

Mamie also decides that his funeral would be an open-casket funeral, where the thousands of attendees could see for themselves what the horrors and evils of racism look like up close. As Mamie says later in the movie when she tells reporters how she felt when she saw Emmett’s dead body: “My son came home to me reeking of racial hatred.”

The rest of “Till” takes viewers on an emotional journey as Mamie uses her inner strength to get justice for Emmett, which was also really a battle for anyone else wronged by a racist American society. Along the way, she meets some influential people who help her and teach her how to navigate being a civil rights activist with the agendas of politicians, lawyers and the media. Mamie also became more involved with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) as a result of her political awakening.

Rayfield Mooty (played by Kevin Carroll), a Chicago labor who also happened to be Mamie’s second cousin, was instrumental in putting Mamie in with the NAACP. In the movie, Rayfield is the first person to bluntly tell Mamie that she has to think strategically. “It would be a good opportunity for a politician to take on Emmett’s cause in an election year,” he advises her.

Her other allies include NAACP attorney William Huff (played by Keith Arthur Bolden), who was recommended to Mamie by Rayfield; civil rights activists William Medger Evers (played by Tosin Cole) and Myrlie Evers (played by Jayme Lawson), Medger’s wife. “Till” shows how the murder of Emmett was just the beginning of the trauma, since murder trial was a continual barrage of racial inequalities that gave preference to the white defendants. Although it is widely believed that several people were involved in Emmett’s murder, only Bryant and Milam went on trial for the murder.

The murder trial in September 1955 (a quick turnaround, considering the murder happened just a month before) is an example of how there are often two types of justice, based on the races of the people involved. Although many “Till” viewers will already know the outcome of the trial before seeing the movie, it doesn’t make the outcome any less impactful. “Till” has a lot of riveting scenes that are meant to upset and enlighten people.

“Till” also shows that sexism against women also played a role in how Mamie was mistreated and misjudged by bigoted members of society during the media coverage of the trial. (Her morality was attacked because she had been divorced, which is criticism that would have been less likely to be inflicted on a divorced man.) She was also advised to not look angry in public, even though she had every right to be angry about what happened to her only child.

And that’s why it’s important for this movie to be shown from a female perspective. In 1955 American society, Mamie didn’t have the privilege of being a church leader or a chapter president of the NAACP, since those leadership positions were almost always were held by men. Even in the early civil rights movement, women were rarely allowed to give long and passionate speeches in public. It’s why what Mamie accomplishes goes beyond racism but also speaks to how she dealt with gender inequalities within the civil rights movement.

“Till” also shows in effective ways the burden of guilt that the women in Emmett’s family feel because they made the decision to let him take that fateful trip to Mississippi. One of Goldberg’s best scenes in the movie is showing through her body language the heavy heart that Alma must have felt in knowing that she was the one to convince Mamie that Emmett needed to go to Mississippi on his own. When Alma breaks down in tears and expresses an outpouring of guilt to Mamie, it’s an example of how trauma often makes loved ones feel responsible for what happened, or feel like they didn’t do enough to protect their loved one, even though it wasn’t their fault.

The movie also accurately depicts that Mamie did not become an activist overnight. It was a gradual process as she began to understand that no one else could be a better advocate for Emmett than she was. Mamie did not ask to become a public figure who was thrust into the spotlight. It was a calling that she answered, out of love and necessity.

Chukwu brings solid direction to “Till,” with many artistic choices in sound, production design, film editing, music, costume design and cinematography. It would be tempting for any filmmaker to make “Till” look like a sweeping epic melodrama. But thankfully, Chukwu and the other “Till” filmmakers refrained from making “Till” look like a social justice soap opera. An over-the-top tone would ruin the whole point of the movie, which is to make the story relatable.

“Till” shows in many ways that the horrific crime that happened to Emmett and his family can, has and does happen to ordinary, law-abiding people through no fault of their own. And, just as importantly, the movie helps people understand that you don’t have to come from a rich or privileged background to make a difference in society. “Till” arrives in theaters in the same year that the Emmett Till Antilynching Act was signed into law by U.S. President Joe Biden on March 29, 2022. The law now makes lynching a federal hate crime in the United States.

The technical aspects of “Till” work very well for the movie, but the story unquestionably has a particular resonance because of how Deadwyler and the rest of the cast members fully embody their characters with authenticity. Even when experiencing so many indignities, Deadwyler shows through her nuanced and outstanding performance how Mamie remained dignified and steadfast in her search for justice. “Till” is a necessary reminder that the work of Till-Mobley and other civil rights advocates is far from over, because racism is everyone’s problem, not just the problem of the people who are targets of this hate.

Orion Pictures will release “Till” in select U.S. cinemas on October 14, 2022, with an expansion to more U.S. cinemas on October 28, 2022.

Review: ‘The Harder They Fall’ (2021), starring Jonathan Majors, Idris Elba, Zazie Beetz, Regina King, LaKeith Stanfield, RJ Cyler and Danielle Deadwyler

December 4, 2021

by Carla Hay

Danielle Deadwyler, Jonathan Majors and Zazie Beetz in “The Harder They Fall” (Photo by David Lee/Netflix)

“The Harder They Fall” (2021)

Directed by Jeymes Samuel

Culture Representation: Taking place in Texas in the mid-1880s, the Western action drama “The Harder They Fall” has a predominantly black cast of characters (with some white people, Latinos and Native Americans) representing the working-class, middle-class, wealthy and the criminal underground.

Culture Clash: When cowboy Nat Love finds out that his arch-enemy Rufus Buck has escaped from prison, Nat assembles a posse that battles against Rufus’ gang.

Culture Audience: “The Harder They Fall” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in well-acted, action-oriented Western dramas about the underrepresented African American cowboy culture of the 1880s, but viewers of the movie should have a high tolerance for over-the-top violence.

Regina King, Idris Elba and LaKeith Stanfield in “The Harder They Fall” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

With grisly violence that is almost cartoonish, “The Harder They Fall” puts a well-acted spotlight on real-life African American cowboys of the 1880s. The movie’s excessive violence might be a turnoff to some viewers. But for viewers who can tolerate all the blood and gore, “The Harder They Fall” is a bumpy and thrilling ride with a top-notch cast.

“The Harder They Fall” is the second feature film of director Jeymes Samuel, who co-wrote “The Harder They Fall” screenplay with Boaz Yakin. Samuel, also composed the movie’s score, has said in interviews that the title of the movie was inspired by the 1972 movie “The Harder They Come,” starring reggae singer Jimmy Cliffnot the 1956 Humphrey Bogart/Rod Steiger movie “The Harder They Fall.” Samuel is a British filmmaker (he’s the younger brother of pop star Seal) who grew up adoring Western movies. However, Samuel eventually found out that these Westerns often gave inaccurate demographic depictions of what post-Civil War life was like the Old West of the 19th century.

In reality, people of color and women had much more agency and independence in Old West culture than what’s shown in most old-time Western movies, which usually portray only white men as leaders of cowboy posses. “The Harder They Fall” aims to course-correct these historical exclusions by doing a fictional portrayal of real-life African American posse members from the 19th century. In case it wasn’t clear enough, a caption in the movie’s introduction states in big and bold letters: “While the events are fictional, the people are real.” (At least the movie’s main characters are based on real people.)

“The Harder They Fall” also doesn’t sugarcoat the reality that there were good and bad cowboy posses. Black people are no exception. The African Americans in the movie are not portrayed as subservient stereotypes, but they aren’t exactly saintly either. Most are just trying to get by and live good lives, while there are some hardened criminals who create chaos for people who have the misfortune of crossing their paths. “The Harder They Fall” takes place in various parts of Texas, but the movie was actually filmed in New Mexico.

“The Harder They Fall” opens with a 10-year-old boy named Nat Love (played by Chase Dillon) witnessing the brutal murder of his parents—Reverend Love (played by Michael Beach) and wife Eleanor Love (played by DeWanda Wise)—during a home invasion. The gangsters shoot Nat’s parents, but they spare Nat’s life. The leader of this gang uses a knife to carve a cross on Nat’s forehead.

About 20 years later, Nat (played by Jonathan Majors) still has the scar on his forehead. And he’s had a lifelong obsession with getting revenge on the gangsters who killed his parents. Nat knows that Rufus Buck (played by Idris Elba) is the gang leader who is the main culprit for the murders. Rufus has recently been in prison for armed robbery and murder.

However, Nat finds out that Rufus has made a prison escape. Two of Rufus’ loyal cronies—ruthless Trudy Smith (played by Regina King) and smooth-talking Cherokee Bill (played by LaKeith Stanfield)—have hijacked the train where prisoner Rufus was being transported, and they broke Rufus out of the cell where he was being kept.

After Nat discovers that Rufus is now a free man (but still wanted by law enforcement), Nat assembles his own posse to get revenge. The other members of the Nat Love Gang are Mary Fields (played by Zazie Beetz), who is Nat’s feisty love interest; Bill Pickett (played by Edi Gathegi), who is a loyal and logical; Jim Beckwourth (played by RJ Cyler), who is a cocky young cowboy; and Cuffee (played by Danielle Deadwyler), who lives as a transgender man.

Nat makes a living by finding “wanted dead or alive” criminals for reward money. Nat has no qualms about killing these criminals if he thinks they deserve it. That’s what happens in an early scene in the movie when Nat shoots and kills a wanted criminal who shows up at a Catholic church with the intention of robbing the church. Nat’s reward is $5,000.

It turns out that Nat and his gang are outlaws too, because they make money by stealing from robbers. Therefore, one of their least-favorite people is Bass Reeves (played by Delroy Lindo), a U.S. marshal who’s determined to put a stop to all this criminal activity. In addition to seeking revenge on Rufus, the Nat Love Gang also wants to avoid capture by Reeves and his law enforcement team. The posse members on both sides are also mistrustful of Wiley Esco (played by Deon Cole), the Redwood City mayor whose allegiances can be murky.

It should be noted that in real life, Bass Reeves is the inspiration for the Lone Ranger character, which has been played by white actors in movies and television. Reeves was considered a pioneer for African Americans in law enforcement, because he did a lot to change American viewpoints that white people aren’t the only race who can become U.S. marshals. In real life, Reeves worked closely with Native American leaders. It’s an alliance that’s depicted in the movie too.

In many ways, “The Harder They Fall” follows a lot of the traditions of typical Westerns, with gun shootouts and chases on horseback. There’s also some romance, as Mary and Nat have an on-again, off-again relationship. Mary, who works as a saloon singer, has a hard time trusting Nat because he’s cheated on her in the past. Nat is an emotionally wounded rebel who’s trying to win back Mary’s heart, but first he has to learn how to heal his own broken heart.

And there’s inevitable fighting among posse members. Most of the friction in Nat’s gang comes from Jim and Bill having personality clashes with each other. Bill thinks Jim is arrogant and reckless, while Jim thinks that Bill is uptight and too cautious. It’s the classic older cowboy/younger cowboy conflict that’s often seen in Westerns.

There are also some gender issues with Cuffee, who wants to live life as a man, but some people think that Cuffee is a woman just doing a drag act. There are parts of the movie where people aren’t sure whether to call Cuffee a “he” or a “she,” since the word “transgender” did not exist at the time. And when Cuffee has to wear a dress (for reasons what won’t be revealed in this review), it makes Cuffee very uncomfortable. After seeing Cuffee in a dress, Jim blurts out that he now knows why was kind of attracted to Cuffee.

Damon Wayans Jr. has a small role in the movie as Monroe Grimes, someone who is captured by Nat’s posse members to get information about Rufus. As for Rufus, he’s a cold-blooded killer who has enough of a twinkle in his eye and swagger in his walk to indicate why his posse subordinates find him so magnetic. Mary can give Rufus a run for his money, in terms of being fearless in battle. Cherokee Bill is violent too, but he’s more likely to use psychology to try to outwit an opponent.

“The Harder They Fall” isn’t particularly innovative in the story structure and dialogue, but there are some impressive camera shots from cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr., and the movie delivers when it comes to adrenaline-filled action scenes. A standout camera shot is in a scene where the camera zooms in with a bullet-like trajectory at a group of posse members to then reveal that there are others standing behind them. Also adding to the striking visuals of “The Harder They Fall” is the first-rate costume design by Antoinette Messam, who brought a practical yet fashionable look to many of these Old West characters.

All of the actors perform well in their roles, with the best scene-stealing moments coming from Majors, King, Elba, Beetz, Stanfield and Deadwyler. Where the movie falters a bit is in how it abandons its mostly gritty realism for some stunts that are so heavily choreographed, it takes you out of the realism and just becomes a reminder that this movie’s fight scenes can sometimes look like ultra-violent parodies of fight scenes in Westerns.

What doesn’t come across as a parody is how credibly the cast members portray their characters. These engaging characters bring real heart and soul to “The Harder They Fall.” (There’s also a poignant plot twist/reveal at the end of the movie that might or might not be surprising to some viewers.) Even though not everyone makes it out alive by the end of the movie, it’s clear by the movie’s last shot that there’s room for a sequel for a spinoff.

Netflix released “The Harder They Fall” in select U.S. cinemas on October 22, 2021. The movie’s Netflix premiere was on November 3, 2021.

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