The True Story of the Black Cowboys Who Inspired Netflix’s The Harder They Fall
The Harder They Fall
The Harder They Fall, a film that will be available on Netflix on November 3, begins with a message that states unequivocally that its “events are fictitious.” Over the course of 137 minutes, director and co-screenwriter Jeymes Samuel builds an epic and blood-splattered narrative of vengeance in the Wild West, following an outlaw as he pursues the guy who murdered his parents.
Despite the fact that the tale is fictitious, several of the characters in the film have names with real-life historical figures: Nat Love, Bass Reeves, Rufus Buck, and Cherokee Bill. Samuel’s characters have some similarities to their namesakes while differing greatly in other areas; most have no true link to one another. Samuel thinks that through filming The Harder They Fall, he may draw attention to how Black pioneers impacted the culture and history of the American West but have since been erased from its legacy. “We have been neglected from the history of the Old West and the cinematic depiction of what the Old West was,” Samuel said earlier this month to the New York Times.
The Harder They Fall is part of a contemporary trend of Black storytellers that use historical information in their work, like Watchmen, Hell on the Border, and the impending Outlaw Posse, Mario Van Peebles’ follow-up to his 1993 western, Posse. “Most people are unaware of that history: they are unaware of Isom Dart, Deadwood Dick, or Stagecoach Mary.” “In Westerns, white male power has ruled supreme,” Van Peebles told TIME earlier this year. Two of these names are mentioned in The Harder They Fall. Here’s a primer on them, as well as the remainder of the genuine tales that inspired the film.
The outlaw Nat Love, portrayed with smoldering ferocity by Jonathan Majors, is at the heart of The Harder They Fall. Majors’ Love commits minor theft and seeks vengeance on a guy who murdered his parents and then branded him as a kid.
Much of what we know about the actual Nat Love comes from his autobiography, published in 1907, titled The Life and Adventures of Nat Love, Better Known in the Cattle Country as “Deadwood Dick.” However, it is debatable how much of Love’s book is true and how much is self-mythology. In his book Black Cowboys in the American West, history professor Michael N. Searles claims that “few sources verify his tale.”
Love states in his autobiography that he was born a slave in Tennessee in 1854, where he learnt to break horses on his owner’s property. Following the passage of the Homestead Act, which permitted freed slaves to claim property in a growing America, Love travelled west and worked as a ranch hand in Kansas. Over the years, Love claims he roved the west, herding cattle and winning roping, bridling, saddling, and shooting competitions, gaining the nickname “Deadwood Dick” for his ability (This nickname was claimed by at least five other people, however). Love tells accounts of riding up to 100 miles a day, killing Mexicans and Native Americans, whom he dismisses as “blood thirsty red skins,” and meeting other cowboy luminaries such as Buffalo Bill and Billy the Kid. “There was no rule recognized in this untamed land but the law of force and the persuasive charms of the 45 Colt Pistol,” Love says.
Whether or not his stories are accurate, it’s certain that other Black cowboys had similar exploits during this time period. As Texas grew into a cattle center in the early nineteenth century, slaves played an important part in livestock management, accounting for a quarter of the region’s settler population in 1825. Many freed slaves became professional cowhands and cowboys after the Civil War, shepherding herds for hundreds of miles between trade cities like Denver and Kansas City. At the height of western expansion, one in every four cowboys was Black.
Love’s claimed adventures were already in the past by the time he wrote his book. He married in 1889 and eventually worked as a Pullman porter, one of the few occupations accessible to Black males at the time.
Nat Love (Majors) finds an unusual friend in US deputy marshal Bass Reeves (Delroy Lindo) in The Harder They Fall, who assists him in his quest for Rufus Buck. For three decades beginning in 1875, Reeves was a respected lawman in Indian Territory, handcuffing over 3,000 offenders; he was recognized for being unbuyable at a period when many lawmen took bribes or were involved in criminal enterprises themselves.
Reeves was born a slave and fled to Indian Territory when he was a teenager. According to other versions, he left after murdering his enslaver in a disagreement and went on to live among the Cherokee, Creeks, and Seminoles until liberation freed him. When Judge Isaac Parker recruited hundreds of additional policemen to try to restore justice to an area rife with violence and subterfuge in 1875, Reeves joined up to be a marshal.
Reeves was an exceptional law enforcement officer for various reasons: he knew several languages, was a thorough investigator, and an honest shooter in several ways. According to legend, he was excluded from turkey shootings at picnics and fairs because he won too easily. Reeves “could shoot the left hind leg off a satisfied fly perched on a mule’s ear at a hundred yards and never disturb a hair,” according to one shot.
He had a notorious walrus mustache and equally legendary disguises, masquerading as a cowboy or a con artist to gain the confidence of his victims. He was a fervent churchgoer and a man of principle: he even arrested his own son Benjamin, who was accused of murdering his wife.
Reeves was the Indian Territory’s longest-serving deputy U.S. Marshal, serving for 32 years. Some say Reeves was the inspiration for the Lone Ranger. He first appeared as a character on Watchmen two years ago. He will also be the focus of a new TV series produced by Morgan Freeman.
Rufus Buck, played by Idris Elba, follows in the footsteps of one of his most well-known characters, Stringer Bell from The Wire. Buck, like Bell, is a lifetime criminal who has been hardened by systematic injustice and bigotry. He thinks that via his illicit operation, he can create respectable corporate structures that will benefit his community—but he employs harsh methods to get there.
Rufus Buck did not live beyond the age of 18 in real life. Buck, the son of a Black mother and a Creek Indian father, was born in the late 1870s. Buck formed a gang with other Black and Creek Indian teenagers in the 1890s and went on a rampage across Arkansas and Oklahoma, stealing businesses, murdering a U.S. deputy marshal, and reportedly brutally assaulting and raping their victims.
According to historians, Buck’s terrorizing had a purpose: he hoped to ignite a Native American revolt that would reclaim Arkansas and Oklahoma from the white settlers who were pressing on Indian Territory in large numbers. “His ambition was unreachable, and he employed the same brutality to accomplish it that he saw all around him,” wrote Leonce Gaiter, who transformed Buck’s story into the 2011 book I Dreamt I Was in Heaven: The Rampage of the Rufus Buck Gang.
In 1896, US Deputy Marshals and police hunted down the gang outside of Okmulgee, engaging in a day-long battle that resulted in the group’s surrender. (There is no evidence that Bass Reeves was involved in this hunt.) Unfortunately for Buck’s crew, their cases were assigned to the previously mentioned Judge Parker, also known as the “Hanging Judge” for his merciless sentencing, and he condemned them to death at Fort Smith. Despite the fact that numerous men had been executed there for murder in earlier decades, gang members Maoma July and Sam Sampson were the first to be hanged for rape. The decision was affirmed by the Supreme Court, and the quintet was executed all on the same day.
While Cherokee Bill, played by Lakeith Stanfield in the film, did not belong to Rufus Buck’s gang as shown in The Harder They Fall, he was a feared criminal in his own right. Crawford Goldsby was born into a mixed family with Sioux, Mexican, Black, and white ancestry. He was a member of the Cook Gang as a youngster, stealing horses, robbing railroads and banks, and murdering anybody who got in his way. After a disagreement, he shot and murdered his brother-in-law.
Cherokee Bill shot and murdered a bystander in cold blood while stealing a shop in 1894, sparking a manhunt. According to journalist Al Cimino’s Gunfighters: A Chronicle of Dangerous Men & Violent Death, he was eventually apprehended by Deputy Marshal W.C. Smith, another Black man, and sentenced to death by Judge Parker, who described him as a “bloodthirsty mad dog who killed for the love of killing” and as “the most vicious” outlaw in Oklahoma. Cherokee Bill conducted a failed jailbreak before being assassinated. He, like Buck, did not survive to be 20.
The ‘Zazie Beets’ Nat Love’s love counterpoint is Mary Fields, who runs a tavern and is also a burlesque dancer. Mary Fields, in real life, rose to prominence in her forties when she consented to leave her home in Ohio to join a Catholic mission in the wilds of Montana.
Mary Fields is supposed to have been born in 1832 on a Tennessee farm. She worked for a family in Cleveland, Ohio, for many years. Following her emancipation, she worked as a groundskeeper at a Toledo convent before following a friend who was an Ursuline mother superior deep into Montana Territory. Mother Amadeus had big plans for her Catholic colonies, particularly for the young Native American women she intended to convert. Her health worsened, however, particularly in the harsh Rocky Mountain region, where both snowstorms and floods were prevalent.
So, when Mother Amadeus requested Fields’ assistance in carrying out her dreams, Fields took a train west and proceeded to handle practically all of the mission’s logistics of survival for the nuns and boarders. She had a vegetable garden and a henhouse, rode buggies and wagons over rugged terrain, transported timber, stone, tools, medicine, and food cleaned clothes, and even hunted wild wildlife. “She achieved everything we couldn’t,” a nun wrote in the Saint Peter’s Ursuline Annals. According to records from 1885, she got $50 a month for her difficulties.
Fields was also known for having a temper and engaging in stereotypically male habits such as drinking, smoking, handling firearms, and even dressing in men’s attire. When rumors spread that Fields had been involved in a gunfight, the local bishop expelled her from the convent. She relocated to Cascade and became the town’s lone Black citizen, working as a laundress.
Fields responded to a request for postal drivers in the 1890s, becoming one of the first recorded African American woman star route mail carriers in the United States. During this period, legends emerged about her toughness and independence; reports claim she fired at thieves attempting to loot her wagon; that she was six feet tall and over 200 pounds, “a match for any two men in the Montana Territory,” with “the temperament of a grizzly bear.” In her article “Mary Fields’ Road to Freedom,” Miantae Metcalf McConnell wrote: “In winter when horse or wagon passage proved impracticable, she draped the US mailbag over her shoulder and puffed the thirty-four-mile roundtrip on snowshoe… Nothing could shake her feeling of responsibility.”
Those tales, however, did not earn Fields legal or societal recognition. She routinely babysat for local families in Cascade but was never introduced to social situations. She became the mascot for a local baseball club and was regarded as a character rather than a person. A gendered rule was created in 1889, prohibiting her from visiting saloons, where she liked to hang out or carry her famous firearm. She passed away in 1914.
RJ Cyler portrays the arrogant Jim Beckwourth, who thinks he is the fastest draw in the west. The real Beckwourth had a far more exciting existence. Beckwourth was a climber and adventurer who traveled over the Rocky Mountains on fur-trapping excursions. He fled white civilization in the 1820s to live among the Crow people, where he fathered multiple children. According to Britannica, he returned to the United States and fought in multiple conflicts on the side of the United States. Beckwourth “found” away in the Sierra Nevada near the height of the Gold Rush, which became known as Beckwourth Pass and helped usher in a population explosion in Central California.
He embellished his life narrative for the writer Thomas D. Bonner, whose 1856 book, The Life and Adventures of James P. Beckwourth, Mountaineer, Scout, Pioneer, and Chief of the Crow Nation of Indians, made Beckwourth a famous figure at the time.
The real Bill Pickett, unlike Edi Gathegi’s persona, was possibly the most renowned Black rodeo rider of the early twentieth century. Bickett was born in a farming family in Oklahoma and quickly pioneered the rodeo sport of “bulldogging,” in which he would seize a bull by the horns and bite into its top lip to immobilize it.
Pickett quickly earned the title “Dusky Demon,” and he went on to perform at fairs and exhibits all around the globe, including for presidents and the British royal family. Pickett performed in two silent films in the 1920s, one a rodeo documentary called The Bull-Dogger and the other an outlaw picture called The Crimson Skull. Pickett became the first Black cowboy to be inducted into the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum’s Hall of Fame in 1971.