Analysis: “The Harder They Fall” Illuminates Modern Socio-Economic Inequities

Produced by Jay-Z and Will Smith, the film explores the injustices that many Black people in the U.S. are still facing.

Credit: Getty Images
Credit: Getty Images

Warning: This article contains spoilers about the film The Harder They Fall, now streaming on Netflix.

Through its rich visuals and storylines, “The Harder They Fall,” a western film portraying a fictionalized rivalry between the Nat Love Gang and Rufus Black, holds a mirror up to a number of modern-day issues such as whitewashing, bank redlining, and land ownership.

The film, which features a predominantly Black cast including Jonathan Majors, Regina King, Idris Elba, and LaKieth Stanfield, effectively elucidates themes linked to systematic oppression, many of which Black Americans continue to contend with today. Here are some of the film’s most resonant topics as they pertain to present-day social injustices. 

Hollywood’s whitewashing of historical events

Hollywood has a long track record of whitewashing films, storylines, and casts. One of the genres that has been most impacted is the classic western. westerns.

“The Harder They Fall,” which is filled with laughter, betrayal, romance, and action, provides a visual reclamation of what was once a lost depiction of Black cowboys in film.

American cowboys, who are traditionally depicted as young,“John Wayne-esqe” white men who enter into scenes on their horses to save the day, have evolved very little throughout the course of cinema history, and still serve as caricatures meant to symbolize the old West.

Yet, during the 19th century 25% of frontiersmen were Black cowboys. As a result of racist laws many Black cowboys were banned from establishments, and consequently were underrepresented in film compared with their white counterparts.

In response to Hollywood’s typical emphasis on white cowboys, “The Harder They Fall” places Black characters in a western setting by fictionalizing real life historical cowboys, including pioneers and outlaws as the characters of Nat Love, Mary Fields, Rufus Buck, Bass Reeves, Gertrude Smith, Cherokee Bill, Bill Pickett, and Jim Beckwourth.
 

The underlying struggle of land ownership — and its accompanying tensions.

The film’s B-plot centers on tensions related to land and ownership. Characters like Willie Escoe, who was a real-life U.S marshal but a fictional small-town mayor, is portrayed with gold teeth, adorned in expensive clothing, and feasts on steak while the town around him struggles to stay afloat and make ends meet.

The depiction of Escoe is one of film’s allusions to a modern economic inequality, in which wealth is funneled to corporate leaders and the ultra rich, with little benefits for poor and middle class.

Economic hierarchies in the U.S. have roots in slavery and in the subsequent emancipation of slaves, when the government reversed its promise to provide 40 acres and a mule to millions of newly free Black people. On January 16,1865, Union General William Tecumseh Sherman proclaimed Special Field Orders No. 15, which were meant to provide reparations to formerly enslaved Black people — but the promise was never fulfilled.

In 2021, Black people owned just 2% of United States farmland compared to in 1920, when Black farmers accounted for 14% of all farmers. The 90% lost in property between 1910 and 1997 was the result of a long history of USDA loan denials and racial discrimination. In 2014, a two-year investigation revealed that the USDA had forged and inflated agricultural census data, falsely indicating a surge in Black farming and loans.

At the film’s start, when Rufus Buck comes into town, he represents a paradigm of faulty leadership. The re-imagined historical figure gives residents an ultimatum: either they pay a heavy tax fee to remain in the town, or they are killed.

Although this account is fictional, Buck’s violent seizure of land parallels the violent tactics that have been routinely been used to disenfranchise Black land owners from their property: much like the American history of land seizure by way of eminent domain during the Jim Crow Era, race massacres like the tragedy of Black Wall Street in Tulsa, and more recently, the use of the heirs property law to incriminate and arrest Black land owners.


 

Financial discrimination and bank redlining 

While the film’s references to the erasure of Black land ownership were subtle, its commentary on financial red-lining was more direct.

In one of the many action-packed scenes of the film, the Nat Love gang travels to the “white-town” of Maysville in hopes of robbing a bank. Upon arriving at the segregated, all-white town, they are met with immediate racial and financial discrimination: Before the robbery, bank tellers laugh at the crew’s request to “make a withdrawal.”

The moment, which might be perceived by some viewers as comical, touches on the practice of “redlining,” which dates back to 1933. At the time, the U.S. had begun increasing housing stock, ultimately prompting lawmakers to map out a plan that resulted in housing segregation.

Although housing segregation was outlawed on paper, its racist origins still linger. In 2021, the gap in homeownership rates between white and Black families are much larger than they were during the 1960’s, and much higher than they were prior to the passage of the Fair Housing Act in 1968.

Not only is there a disparity in home ownership rates, but according to recent studies, “African Americans continue to be routinely denied conventional mortgage loans at rates far higher than their white counterparts,” and are far more likely to be denied bank loans. Much like the fictional depiction, it has become increasingly harder for Black communities and small businesses to navigate around racist financial institutes that block loans.

The lack of loans has affected all areas of life for many Black Americans- from small business owners to farmers owners. According to reports, “97% of USDA disaster payments went to white farmers, less than 1% went to Black farmers, and the USDA took three times as long to process Black farmer loans compared to white farmers.”

Until recently, there has been little pushback from the government on these discriminatory practices: On Friday, October 22, 2021 the Justice Department announced plans to fight redlining by launching its Combatting Redlining Initiative, a program meant to ensure that fair lending enforcement is informed by local expertise on housing markets and that the credit needs of local communities of color are addressed. 

The initiative came about after Attorney General Merrick B Garland acknowledged the racial failings of the housing system, and the lack of economic mobility that it creates in Black communities, “

The Harder They Fall captures the obstacles that Black people often face during the proccess of to obtaining loans:from having to travel far distances to access certain banks, to facing discrimination,, and in some instances, the outright refusal of loans. Although all of these roadblocks are still very much present today, Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke says her team is actively working to launch new counter initiatives that combat these issues.

 A fictional portrayal of ongoing cycles of violence

In what seems to be the final driving metaphor, after killing off the film’s antagonist, Rufus Buck, lead heroine Stagecoach Mary asks Nat Love if the devil is “really dead,” to which she is met with a contemplative and solemn response: “I don’t know,” says Nat Love.

Although Nat’s enemy, Rufus Black, has died, Nat’s response hints at the fact that figuratively, the “devil” may still be alive.

The “devil” in question could be interpreted as a metaphor for the cycles of violence that are ultimately caused by systems of oppression that prevent equal access to resources. Forms of systematic oppression, including a lack of economic resources, land rights, and a lack of socio-economic mobility, all of which disproportionately affect the film's fictionalized characters, echo familiar oppressive forces still present today.

As the film’s director says, “I wanted to tell a story where the antagonist and the protagonist are essentially the same person doing the exact same thing. It’s a never-ending loop of violence that we are sucked into, and I wanted to not preach but to shine a light on what happens all too often in our community.”