‘The Harder They Fall’ Director and Costume Designer Talks Westerns
Jeymes Samuel took on great creative responsibility when creating his Black Western film “The Harder They Fall”. As a writer, director, producer, and composer, there was one guiding philosophy that guided him through it all: “Obey your fool.”
The film strings together a fictional narrative from several real-life black cowboys. For example, Nat Love, played by Jonathan Majors in the film, lived from 1854 to 1921 and was a former slave who became a major figure in the Old West. In the process of finding Samuel, he realized that cowboys had already embodied the highly stylized sensibilities he was developing for the film.
“I always say, ‘Obey your fool.’ But it seemed like validating that crazy mark was right,” he said during the Variety Streaming room presented by Netflix. “Antoinette was the first [head of department] it was on this movie. So me and Antoinette were cooking from the beginning, back and forth, what they wore, what I would like them to wear, what would be the new interpretations of what they were trying to do. [And] If you look at a picture [of] Nat Love, the pictures he would take of him, he’s super swag out! With huge dudes in the hair, all like on the side.
“So how would we interpret that today? What would that kind of loot be, where you can see that these people are image conscious, like we always have been? Samuel continued. “But they still dress for the environment, they still dress for the mission, while looking like bosses. And all of these conversations – the costumes, the build of the environment as well, the design of the production – all of these conversations, to see them all embraced by the audience – Burna Boy did a show the other day, and he came out right in the cowboy clothes, then Burna Boy and “The Harder They Fall” were both trendy at the same time – I wouldn’t say necessarily surreal, but it’s just warm and confirms that we were right. People were ready for these stories to be told and for these images to be presented.
The use of color in “The Harder They Fall” was one area that allowed Messam and the creative team major creative license.
“Jeymes kept saying, ‘I need more color, Antoinette, I need more color.’ And I kept saying, ‘It’s happening, Jeymes. It’s coming.’ Messam said. “Having someone like Martin Whist as my production designer, who is the king of color and known for his elaborate textures and eye-poppingly grandiose sets, I needed to use his direction. Not even his direction – back to Jeymes and some of the paintings and artwork he shared with us that were the inspiration and the colors within. Most important to Jeymes was that he wanted his characters burst, they say, “I’m here. To embody what they could have been if we were watching a movie that hadn’t been covered in gray dust.”
“What Jeymes and I did was just filter through all the ideas and colors and find all these searches, [and] 90% of it was black and white. But then I went to the fashion imagery of things that inspired me, like Ozwald Boateng’s Harlem Renaissance collection,” Messam added. “And those rich, bold jewel tones. I just knew that was what we needed in our movie. So once the actors started coming in, I just started to feel not only their inner vibe , but also their complexion, the way they walk. I started with RJ [Cyler, who plays Jim Beckwourth] from his feet up. We started with his boots. A caramel brown. It was the true color of his costume, and we just built it up.
Although the film’s final aesthetic was very unique and intentional, Messam pointed out that their collaborative process allowed everything to come together easily.
“The color for me, although it looked very specific and stylized, was almost organic. Because we work from known palette references and then we add our own taste and style and what we wanted it to be. And then of course Jeymes’ mandate: “I want color. Everything just started to fall into place seamlessly. That red scarf [on Lakeith Stanfield, who plays Cherokee Bill], I literally put it on as we were about to shoot. He just needed a pop, and I just ran over there with a little piece of scarf and wrapped it around his neck.
“From the start, she was just teaching me about color in general,” Samuel said of Messam. “And its use. What to do, which characters would wear what. So I’m like, ‘I want more color!’ She’s like, ‘Jeymes, it’s colorful. Trust me when the camera hits it.
Watch the full conversation above.