“Trudy’s mine,” hisses Stagecoach Mary Fields (played by Zazie Beetz), her eyes blazing.
Trudy Smith (Regina King) ducks into a dye barn, its rafters hung with swatches of color.
Their eyes lock, Mary empties her shotgun onto the floor. Trudy tosses her pistol to the side.
“Let’s go,” Mary spits out. A wild fight scene ensues between the two members of rival cowboy gangs: bodies hit windows, teeth crunch into hands and horseshoes hurl toward heads.
Toward the end of the new Netflix western “The Harder They Fall” — a reminder that Black cowboys should be as much a part of the genre as anyone else — Mary and Trudy duke it out in an epic fight that nearly ends in death.
Although the director, Jeymes Samuel, is a singer-songwriter known as the Bullitts, he has dabbled in filmmaking, and “The Harder They Fall” is his first feature. In a video interview, he clarified that he wasn’t reimagining the western — he was “replacing” it.
“What I was doing with that fight, I’ve done it the whole film,” he said. “The whole film is reverse psychology on what we know as the western and puts up a mirror.”
Historians estimate that one in four cowboys were Black, a fact that was hardly reflected in the conventional westerns popular in the 20th century, which were largely devoid of people of color.
In creating the film, his aim was to counter two tropes of traditional westerns: people of color shown as less than human; and women appearing subservient and less than men. “Westerns have never given light to women and their power in that period,” he said. That’s why Samuel, who wrote the screenplay with Boaz Yakin, inverted gender roles in the Mary-Trudy battle.
“All the men in the film, when they have conflict, they pick up guns,” Samuel said, adding, “It takes the two women to literally throw away their guns and duke it out.”
Although the actresses, part of a star-studded cast, worked closely with their stunt doubles, Nikkilette Wright and Sadiqua Bynum, most of the final cut features the actresses themselves — because the stunt doubles were simply too good at their jobs. The stand-ins’ work “was too clean,” Samuel said. “In that particular scene, it was perfect and neat, whereas I needed the urgency. When you put Zazie and Regina together, neat went out the window.”
Beetz, King, Wright and Bynum practiced the fight on their own time in a hotel conference room in Santa Fe, N.M., where much of the movie was shot. As rough and tumble as the scene may look onscreen, Beetz said in a phone interview that it was all very carefully choreographed.
“We also wanted the fight to look scrappy, because we wanted it to look real and intense and how people really would potentially fight,” she said. “I think it’s just a testament in general to the shift in film and the shift in how we see women and their physical abilities.”
As part of her preparation, the actress read about Stagecoach Mary Fields, the first African American woman in the United States to be a mail carrier on star routes — routes handled by contractors who were not employed by the Postal Service. (Many of the main characters are based on real historical figures, but Samuel fictionalized the vast majority of the plot.) Fields was enslaved until she was around 30 years old, when the Emancipation Proclamation was issued. Then she went on to live a whole new life.
“There was a lot of formerly enslaved people who moved to the West, and the culture of the United States wasn’t as established in the West,” Beetz said. “So there was more mobility for Black people. And there really were towns that were all Black, and they were self-sustaining, and it was an interesting place where Black people could thrive.”
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In “The Harder They Fall,” the crime boss Rufus Buck (Idris Elba), recently released from prison, plans to found an all-Black town, a hub of sorts in the Old West. Buck’s right-hand woman is Trudy Smith, and his rival is the outlaw Nat Love (Jonathan Majors), who is bent on revenge. King, speaking by phone, said that a more conventional western would have given that epic fight to Nat and Rufus.
Of course, she and Beetz never would have been able to film such a rowdy scene in the first place if not for Bynum and Wright. (Bynum also stepped in for King on HBO’s “Watchmen.”) The double is only as good as the actor, King said, and the actor is only as good as the double.
“I’ve never been a fan of westerns, and I enjoy this film,” King said. “So I think it is an indicator that maybe there would be people that would be fans who aren’t — if there were more stories or scenes” like the one between Trudy and Mary.
The scene itself is set to a live version of “Let’s Start” by the Nigerian Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti. (Music is particularly important to Samuel, who is also a music producer.)
“We going to play for you our first tune tonight,” Kuti says as Mary enters the dye barn.
“And the first tune is called ‘O l’oun t’awa se n’yara. Je k’abere,’” he says in Yoruba as the two women come to a standoff.
“Which means, ‘Let’s start what we have come into the room to do,’” Kuti says. Mary and Trudy toss their guns away. And the fight begins.
“That music is cowboy,” Samuel said. “That music is western. How come this music has never met the Old West before? How come that music has never been firstly in cinema, but especially in cowboy? It fits perfectly.”