by G. Brown
Netflix just announced plans to bring an all-Black Western to its streaming lineup. The project is already linked with some giants in the entertainment world-actor Idris Elba is signed on and the film is reportedly being backed by music mogul JayZ.
“The Harder They Fall” is the story of an outlaw named Nat Love living with the horrendous memory of his parents’ murders. Elba stars as the man convicted of those murders twenty years ago who paid for his crimes and is now being released from prison. Love still seeking revenge hunts for his enemy.
The project is causing a lot of positive buzz and chatter
Why all the excitement about a movie genre that many think of as nothing more than a worn-out trope like vampires and wise-cracking police detectives who always get their man?
Hollywood’s early attempts at capturing the story of Black cowboys on film often missed the mark. In 1937, at the dawning of the talkies “Harlem Prairie” hit movie houses billed as the first Black Western featuring an all-Black cast. The starring role cast an actor named Herb Jeffires (sometimes known as Herbert Jeffrey) with very light skin and silky hair. Jeffries boasted of having a White Irish Mother and a father who was of Sicilian, French, Italian and Moorish descent. Jeffries described himself as three-eighths Negro. It was later discovered that Herb Jeffries was a mulatto definitely born to a White mother, but his father was either Black or Sicilian. And apparently Jeffries wasn’t Black enough for Hollywood’s first Black Western so make-up was applied to darken his skin.
The low budget film was a box office hit for the time and spawned at least four more films. Aimed at Black audiences, the films but did little to advance Black culture and only mimicked the formula of White cowboys about hidden gold, rival gangs sprinkled with a little romance and in this case a musical.
Four decades later, as a more liberal shift spread across the country following the Civil Rights Movement of the 60s, Hollywood felt comfortable enough with where race relations were heading that it tried a very liberal approach to Blacks and Westerns. The movie’s mastermind Mel Brooks was ready to hit the country with a satirical western that used comedy to confront every racist stereotype out there. “Blazing Saddles” all-star cast included Richard Pryor and Cleavon Little and would go on to become a cult classic.
More recent films like “Unforgiven”, “Hateful 8” and “Django” were all to some extent a version of the Black Western that still never seemed to embrace the true story of the Black cowboy.
Black cowboys were believed to make up about twenty percent of the cowboy population. Most of them were slaves or children of slaves who had the skills to tame to the wild west. They were more than just trail cooks and often earned the same wages as other cowboys who helped to break wild horses. While Black cowboys did earn equal pay to that of their White counterparts, they still faced racism. Often they were forced to sleep in separate quarters and may have more duties to perform on and off the trail such as laundry, cooks and late-night guards.
Netflix’s dive into this rich page of Black history offers another chance for Hollywood to give us a real glimpse of what life on the range was like for Black cowboys. Maybe this time, they won’t give us some cookie-cutter version of Buffalo Bill Cody, but the gritty, true-life story of these daring, brave and sometimes deadly pioneers of the frontier.