by Sarah Cook
“Praise be the Black Queen,” yells Jeymes Samuel across the gaggle of press huddle in The Mayfair Hotel. It’s a crisp winter morning and the early-LFF journalists have pegged it from the Southbank Centre, following a screening of The Harder They Fall. There’s a lot of talk and buzz about the upcoming Western, which is having it’s world premiere tonight; kicking off the BFI London Film Festival in style. The atmosphere is electric, the excitement is palpable and from the minute Jeymes Samuel hits the podium, you can tell all this collective passion roots back to him.
It was certainly the case for Regina King, the (obvious) recipient of the above praise upon first Facetiming with the songwriter turned director. “The enthusiasm just came through,” Academy Award-winning King says of accepting the role. “There was also room to collaborate. It wasn’t just ‘me, me, me.’ It is impossible to tell a story without all the storytellers involved. He (Samuel) was so confident, but it wasn’t conceit.”
King, who plays outlaw Treacherous Trudy in Samuel’s action-epic, is not wrong. Samuel is a loveable character who talks fast and at great length about his work and the art that inspires him. His intellect and passion takes up a lot of the press conference, but nobody minds, we could listen to him talk about his projects for the whole day. “I was sneaking into London Film Festival years ago, now I’m here!”
Samuel’s long-time friend Idris Elba sits at the other end of the table and they both talk about the journey from Harrow Road to the dusty deserts of the “feral” West. “We grew up together doing stupid shit, and here we are making a Western.”
Traditionally, the genre has been dominated by white filmmakers and actors, with most black characters relegated to being subservient and slaves. “The scope they showed those stories through was very narrow, and I wanted to change that,” says Samuel.
The idea has been bouncing around for 2002, having script changes and cast pulling out. The biggest dilemma turned out to be a huge global pandemic which swept the world. Idris Elba, the main antagonist of The Harder They Fall, caught COVID. Samuel jokes: “Idris Elba is so black that he got COVID-20.”
Yet Elba talks about how the pandemic affected his acting. “I probably wouldn’t be able to do the same performance two years ago. I used what we went through to build Rufus Buck.”
Like many productions, Samuel and co had to work through Zooms and Facetimes to get the film finish though Jonathan Majors insists that the director was using video calls long before COVID hit. “We’ve all been wanting the ability to speak face to face via our phones and now we got it, we don’t want it.”
However, when asked about producing a black-led movie, Samuel uses COVID and recent events to inspire us. “It’s like we’ve been living in a movie. COVID is an alien and through all that, it’s unified us. Look, we’re all wearing our masks because we don’t want to get bucked by the illness.”
Elba leaps off this saying; “Stories are stories are stories and the lens has gotten so much wider.”
When Majors states that he wishes to say something controversial, there is a hush across the room. “It unifies us but in peace time, we go back to separation. We label ourselves. It’s not right but it’s what is done. Through these stories and storytelling, we try to break down those biases.”
The leading man of The Harder They Fall is Nat Love, a young outlaw seeking vengeance after Buck killed his family and scarred him for life. After watching Majors interview for White Boy Rick, Samuel knew that he had the intellect and depth to play “Once I get a thought in my head, I don’t leave it alone until I’ve completed it. I knew I had to have Majors.”
It’s hard not to see what attracted Samuel to Majors in the first place. The softly eloquent and emotive manner in the way he speaks is enticing. As Samuel puts it, it’s clear that there is something more going on which is what drives the gang of loyal bandits to Nat Love in the first place. When Major talks about his role, it is with intricacy and intimacy. “For me the most important thing that happens to Nat Love in those first ten pages of the script – the murder of his mother and father.” Though his character is steeped in vengeance, Majors he is a fair bandit. “He thinks, ‘I won’t rob from banks, but I will rob you if you rob banks.’”
Whilst only one sits before us, three women dominate the screen with their male counterparts, equally ruthless, cunning, and violent. Speaking on her own character as well as Zazie Beetz and Danielle Deadwyler, Regina King comments; “Their existence is not based on any man or a child or a parent or some story that has to connect them to something other than being who they are. And to have three women that are so different and so sure and still have those layers, not be one dimensional, was exciting to see. And for a man to be the one to write it is so special.”
Still, it must’ve been nice to play a villain as cool and calculated as Trudy, but King insists there is a soul, riddled with trauma and pain. After all, it’s one of the many reasons why she took the job.
“If it’s not rooted in heart, then I am not interested,” says Regina King, who is not a fan of Westerns, when asked about what drives her villainous character and her relationship with Buck, concluding the morning’s press conference.
Whilst King does star in a Western, it is clear that this production is very much rooted in heart.