The classic American Western, a product of the twentieth century, was a fantasy. Verisimilitude was never its goal. Black folks were glaringly absent from those paeans to the society white Americans imagined for their forebears: tough, independent, righteous, and bound by an often quixotic moral code. Regardless, the genre is now revered by all (including Black fans) as the ultimate vehicle through which people declare their freedom, independence, morality and general badassedness.
Freedom. Freedom to right wrongs. Freedom to strike back. Freedom to revel in revenge. These are freedoms denied Black people throughout American history. We’re not even allowed to openly contemplate revenge for the centuries of enslavement, brutality, rape and other forms of violence heaped on us. Denying ourselves thoughts of retaliation that would plague any human treated as we have been is just another form of denying our full humanity.
The Netflix film The Harder They Fall, as with other recent movies like Django Unchained and The Birth of a Nation, tries to right this wrong and mythologize Black historical figures as independent rebels who take no shit, and will kill you for saying a word that even starts with “N.” The film, directed by Jeymes Samuel, employs historical characters, but makes up entirely new stories about their lives. These characters include Cherokee Bill (Lakeith Stanfield), a half-Cherokee, half-black outlaw raised by his black grandmother; Bill Pickett (Edi Gathegi), a cowboy and Wild West show performer; and Bass Reeves (Delroy Lindo), a U.S. Deputy Marshal who worked in what was then “Indian Territory”—today’s Oklahoma.
Then there is Rufus Buck—a historical figure who was fascinatingly, enigmatically unique. In the film, Buck is played by Idris Elba, who is 49. However, the real-life Buck was at most 21 years old when he was executed by order of “Hanging Judge” Isaac Parker in 1895. That’s the first, but not the last, liberty the film takes in adapting his story. Buck’s actual life, or what we can glean of it, deserves its own stage. That’s why I wrote the historical novel I Dreamt I Was in Heaven: The Rampage of the Rufus Buck Gang.
Some accurate information about Buck is available, but there is nothing close to a detailed life story. There are records of his arrests, and press accounts, but the latter cannot be fully trusted, since the advocacy journalism of the time portrayed Black and Native offenders as particularly evil and threatening. Buck went from being a very young man, arrested and jailed for selling illicit liquor, to the most wanted man in the Indian Territory. By all accounts, his gang threatened, maimed, killed, terrorized and raped, putting him right in the league of a Jesse James.
The fascinating question is “Why?” How do you evolve, in such a short span of time, from an aficionado of reading outlaw pamphlets, to the most feared man in the whole Territory? That’s the story I tried to tell, and it involved far more than just Buck and other outlaws. It involved politics, history, and the trajectory of America itself.
It is clear that the real Buck’s young age was important to his story; the two-week long rampage he carried out was that of a teenager, with all the rage and thoughtlessness that implies. The film, on the other hand, shows Elba’s Rufus Buck as a mature, hardcore killer, one doing his business in a principally Black world. But the real-life Buck was just a petty offender prior to his famous rampage. No experienced gunslinger, he also inhabited the opposite of a racially homogenous society.
In fact, the historical Buck’s multicultural environment clearly played a large part in his development. By 1895, there were more whites in Indian Territory than Indians, and the US government was on the verge of absorbing the land for white settlement. The Territories also included freedman towns: Black enclaves founded by former slaves. Buck himself attended a Christian mission school run by a white man. Buck was multi-racial. His father was half Creek Indian, and his mother was Black. Placing him in an overwhelmingly Black context may serve the film’s purposes, but it strips Buck of his backstory. Ditto for removing him from Indian Territory.
Most significantly, the movie omits Buck’s stated mission—the cleansing of whites from Indian Territory. He had lived his life there, and, much like present-day viewers of movies like The Harder They Fall, he was reportedly fascinated by pulp pamphlet tales of Black and Indian outlaws. The characters in these were “free” to do as they pleased, and took no guff from anyone—critical to a youth attending a mission school that punished him for speaking his native Creek language. His very exposure to the white world drove Rufus Buck.
Through his Creek father, the young Buck had absorbed the Indian genocide and watched the Dawes Act strip the tribes of their traditional land rights in Indian Territory. His mother most likely endured some form of bondage. He was watching the last refuge of his people torn from them, and in truly American fashion, he assumed the impossible task of crushing the march of the American Goliath with his little band of five. He assumed that once he began, all the Native people and Blacks in the Territory would join him, rise up, and remove the usurping whites; he would be his peoples’ messiah. He was grotesquely wrong; instead, whites, Blacks, and Indians joined together to hunt him down.
The real Rufus Buck may have crossed paths with Cherokee Bill (real name Crawford Goldsby) at the Fort Smith jail right outside Indian Territory. However, Buck and Bill were never in the same gang, as the film depicts—at most, they might have met each other while behind bars. Shockingly young, both Buck and Bill were hanged around age 20 by order of “Hanging Judge” Isaac Parker, a white man—the same man who had sentenced Buck for selling liquor.
I see Parker’s role in Buck’s saga as crucial, but the film omits this character. In an odd bit of historical irony, the same forces that drove Buck to his crusade—the final U.S. assimilation of Indian lands in the area—stripped Parker of his power after 20 years as the sole law in the vast Indian Territory. The dissolution of Indian Territory killed the project to which Parker had devoted his life. He died not long after presiding over the Buck Gang’s executions.
The century’s close would bring Indian Territory, Buck, Cherokee Bill, and the white man who condemned them to an end. It would also bring an end to Buck’s dream, the illusion of Native sovereignty, and the old west itself. The Harder They Fall is a wish-fulfillment romp, appropriate to the casual use of the western genre. However, the real stories of some of the outlaws named in the film carry historical and dramatic weight enough to sear the conscience, and help rearrange our understanding of the American West—and America itself.