Why Zazie Beetz's role in ‘The Harder They Fall’ is such a big deal, even if she doesn’t think so
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For the longest time, Hollywood’s Westerns followed a blinkered blueprint with a predominantly white cast.
If black actors were cast, it was, by and large, in token roles. And actresses could forget about getting any kind of scope if they were signed on.
Times have changed and, thankfully, for the better.
We are now witnesses to history in the making, especially with Netflix’s “The Harder They Fall”, which is a welcome mind-shift for the industry - with its all-black cast.
The big-budget, revisionist Western is directed by Jeymes Samuel (aka The Bullitts).
He also shares the producer credits with Jay-Z, James Lassiter and Lawrence Bender. G Mac Brown wears the hat of executive producer.
Ever since Denzel Washington and Jamie Fox threw the rule book out the window as formidable leads in “The Magnificent Seven” and “Django Unchained”, respectively, change has been fermenting in the minds of creatives.
And the cast of “The Harder They Fall” was probably nothing more than a wish list at first.
Seriously, who would have imagined Idris Elba, Regina King, Zazie Beetz, Jonathan Majors, LaKeith Stanfield, Delroy Lindo, Edi Gathegi, Damon Wayans jr and Danielle Deadwyler as leads in the same project?
The story centres on outlaw Nat Love (Jonathan Majors) looking to settle a score with his old enemy Rufus Buck (Elba).
As a young boy, Nat watched Rufus execute his parents in cold blood. While he was spared a similar fate, he was branded with a cross on his forehead.
Several years later, that pent-up anger is unleashed after Rufus’s old crew, helmed by Trudy (King), break him out of jail.
But what also blew my mind about the script is the fact that this film isn’t some whimsical notion to make a point either.
While the story is fictional, the characters are inspired by real cowboys, lawmen and outlaws of the 19th-century American West.
Added to that, Beetz and King aren’t window dressing as Stagecoach Mary and Trudy Smith, respectively. Their characters get in on the action and hold their own against their male counterparts.
That was what fuelled my excitement to chat with Beetz over a Zoom call.
While she is based in New York City, she was in Atlanta for work.
The casually-dressed German-American actress is best known for her roles in the dramedy, “Atlanta”, in the Netflix anthology series Easy, as Domino in “Deadpool 2”.
She was also in “Geostorm” and “Joker”.
At 30, though, she is still planting her footprints. But, so far, she is doing a stellar job of latching onto projects that will advance her career.
Having watched the film, I was surprised by her downplaying the scope of the women characters.
She explained: “I don’t think I necessarily signed onto this movie as, like, the next feminist movement, you know. But I think that what really drew me to this movie is the idea of putting it into the collective consciousness that black people existed in the West.
“That we were historically a part of this narrative. Twenty-five percent of cowboys were black Americans, and I think that kind of narrative was pretty scrubbed from media and how I think a lot of people viewed what the West looked like. That, to me, was interesting.”
She clearly viewed the feature in a more historically holistic light.
“To me, the film is more about family and dealing with your past and what your demons are, and how they affect you today versus really focusing on women’s issues,” Beetz added.
I still think, given the pivotal roles they play, that is it a win for women actors all the same. But I didn’t push the issue further.
The actress then unravelled the magnetism of her character, who is Nat’s love interest.
She shared: “Stagecoach Mary is a very independent person. Very savvy. She can hold her own. She doesn’t like to be tied down to anyone or anything. She’s powerful in her presence. Deeper in her heart, she’s very passionate.
“To a degree, she is kind of a romantic. While she loves this person very deeply, she also realises that she is an individual and she needs to do her own thing.”
Interestingly, this is the first time Beetz has worked with King, and it is her first Western, too.
She admitted: “She (King) took me under her wing. She’s wonderful to work with. She’s very open and very professional.
“Kind to everyone, carries a presence and sticks up for people and makes sure everyone is heard and is taken care of.
“I just really admired that about her. She’s a phenomenal actress. Working with her was a gift.”
That Beetz and King get to partake in a chunk of the gun-slinging action is a win for actresses who were historically marginalised.
While the bigger picture overshadows the smaller win for Beetz, it is a win nonetheless!