This week on The Treatment, Elvis welcomes filmmaker and musician Jeymes Samuel, whose newest project is the Western “The Harder They Fall” on Netflix. Samuel also directed “They Die by Dawn” and is a singer-songwriter, who also goes by “The Bullitts.” Samuel tells The Treatment he sees filmmaking and music as deeply interconnected. He says he wanted to bring attention to the often ignored history of Black cowboys in his film. And Samuel says he sees Joni Mitchell and Jay-Z as very similar musicians and storytellers.
The following interview has been abbreviated and edited for clarity.
KCRW: Welcome to The Treatment, the home edition. I'm Elvis Mitchell. You have to love somebody whose first drop was called "The Prequel." He was letting us know that we're going to be hearing a lot from him. I think Jeymes Samuel is somebody who has an interesting idea of the way that Black culture and mainstream pop culture intersect. One of my favorite things is a song you did called "Landspeeder." We're gonna talk about his feature film directorial writing debut, "The Harder they Fall." It seems like you're always doing this mosaic of contemporary culture and Black culture and mainstream culture. Is that where you begin as an artist, as a musician and a director?
Jeymes Samuel: As a musician, I've always regarded myself as, at root, a folk musician. My voice and my acoustic guitar. My influences musically go back further than time itself. If I'm outside the house, I'm listening to Wu Tang Clan and Mobb Deep and Jay-Z and Nas. If I'm inside the house, I'm listening to Crosby, Stills and Nash, Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne. So my brain is always cooking everything together in both film and music and drawing from all of my influences, and bringing them into the present.
KCRW: You reference Joni Mitchell and Jackson Browne but also Mobb Deep and Jay, and you connect it to people who use music for storytelling, which we hear a lot of in folk as well.
Samuel: Absolutely. I've always said Joni Mitchell, for me, is the closest thing to Jay-Z and vice versa. Joni Mitchell has a song called "Down to You." I get the same feeling from that as I do listening to Jay Z's, "U Don’t Know" from "The Blueprint." It's the same type of thing, which is why when I create and I write music and I produce for artists, I try to bring those worlds together, like putting Charlotte Gainsbourg on the same track as Jay-Z and I called it "Dinner at Tiffany's."
KCRW: Let audiences know what "The Harder They Fall" is about before we start talking about more influences here.
Samuel: "The Harder They Fall" is a Western. It's a tale about revenge, about a child that has his parents killed in front of him when he was a child. He grows up, becomes a gunslinger and grows up hunting the man that mysteriously killed his parents. But for me, really, it's a love story rooted in the cycle of violence that we find ourselves all too often in. You become what you kill, right? For me, everything is about love and loss. And that's what the movie at its root is about.
What was different and unique about the film is that most of the characters are Black, and they're all real characters that really existed in that space and time in the Old West. And just characters that we've never learned about. We've learned about Jesse James and Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett, but we've never learned about Stagecoach Mary, Bass Reeves and Rufus Buck. So I kind of put them all in one fictional tale.
KCRW: "They Die by Dawn," which is really about psychological violence, has not nearly as much violence or shooting in it. There's a lot of tension built throughout the entire thing. We're waiting for violent acts to happen. Can you talk about what you did in "The Harder They Fall," that's really kind of a 180 of that?
Samuel: In "They Die by Dawn," everything's dialogue and the anticipation of violence. It's still brutality, but it's more mental brutality. You know who these men are, or you learn who they are, and you learn what they were capable of. But it's much more mental than anything else. Whereas in "The Harder They Fall," the switch is flipped and you really see it from the beginning. I show you the actual brutality that this child experiences and everything he does, just growing up and everything that happens around them. There's a lot I still leave to the imagination, but just with regards to the violence, I wanted to actually take you into that place, into that time and attempt to make you feel what they were feeling, what the child felt, seeing his parents ripped away from him. I really wanted to hit people over the head with it. And now that I have your attention, watch this story.
KCRW: There's an old school, almost Old Testament vengeance, and I want to talk to you about this because every act of violence that we see is met with a response. I feel like that's your way of saying there has to be responsibility in these acts of violence. And also the way people of color visit acts of violence upon themselves. I mean, that's, by the end, the real horror: that people of color are shooting each other.
Samuel: Every act is met with immediate repercussions, even if you don't see the repercussions with bullets. The violence leads you nowhere but toward the destination of more violence. There's no happy ending at the end of violence; someone's always gonna lose. And in the end, that energy comes back to you. And I really wanted to focus on the carnage that happens within our own communities, even just within the environments in which we grow up and really take a look at without preaching, but take a look at what we're actually doing it for.
KCRW: They're talking and not communicating. I mean, that to me is kind of the horror, too. It's almost like the old West Coast-East Coast wars where people are talking and not hearing each other.
Samuel: I tried to turn everything on its head with this film. When we get to the end and we find out things about Rufus Buck and then when you look at what the Rufus Buck gang, the quote unquote bad guys--Idris Elba, Regina King, Lakeith Stanfield--when you look at what they're doing through the movie, they have an objective and an outcome. They just have a menacing way of going about it just like the government, really. And they're actually not bad whereas when we meet the Nat Love gang, they're taking out people in cold blood.
What I wanted to do is really study not necessarily the characters, but almost study ourselves, and why we call particular people bad guys and particular people good guys. If you look at it from one aspect, it's almost like an hourglass at the end of the movie, tip the hourglass upside down and watch the sand spill out from the other direction.
KCRW: You're saluting the way that Black culture has always paid attention to Westerns because Black culture is innately a part of the Western. At one point it was an insult to be called a cowboy. A white man was called a cow puncher, but that doesn't sound as melodious as being called a cowboy. So it's all about appropriation and making a stand and drawing a line in the sand, isn't it?
Samuel: Absolutely. Cowboy was a term for Black people and Mexicans. There wasn't even a term for white people. Then Hollywood, they took it, realized that, and erased everyone of color from the picture, from the narrative. Black people were always a huge part of the cowboy experience. It wasn't even the Old West, not one person lived in the Old West; it was the New West. It was the new frontier, new America. There was nothing old about it at the time. And a huge part of that was people of color and Black people in particular. It's just that Hollywood gave us a really narrow viewpoint of what that experience was about. They made women subservient and people of color treated less than human, so we never got to learn that till much later.
KCRW: I want to hear about the way you grew up. We can hear all these points of intersection in the music of The Bullitts and then in visual terms, we could see it all in certainly the videos, and "They Die by Dawn." Did you go to movies a lot as a kid with your parents and siblings?
Samuel: I was always addicted to film. Around 11 years old, I got a really deep introduction to film because I was kicked out of one school and I joined another. So I was just at home with my mum, and my mum is a cinephile. She is by heart, a film buff. And she just sat me at home watching all of these films and TV shows. She taught me about Alfred Hitchcock, Fellini, François Truffaut. She taught me about David Lean, who was her favorite director. I do not even understand how she knew so much about film. She never studied it; she was just addicted to cinema. So by the time I joined my second school, I was literally addicted to everything cinema.
KCRW: Especially seeing [The Harder They Fall] in a theater, it's hard to not connect it to you as a musician. I feel like the world works for you almost primarily through sound. The spoken words and music, the count seem to me to be crucial to the way you think.
Samuel: It's like: I see music, and I hear film. I've always seen music as a visual art form, not just as a sonic one. My mom bought me a Super 8 camera when I was like seven, and she bought me a Bolex 16 millimeter when I was 13. I was always playing instruments because there were instruments in the house. I always had a guitar in my hand. And so I was always shooting short films and putting music underneath and composing the music to it. I was always doing both; they were never really separate for me.
KCRW: Talk to me about that title.
Samuel: The title is, for me, an awesome homage to the Jamaican Jimmy Cliff: "The Harder They Come." And in the beginning of that movie, they're watching the Western, the Franco Nero "Django," and then it kind of influences the whole story. For me, "The Harder They Fall" is the Western they would have been watching in "The Harder They Come" had they had it at the time.
KCRW: Because "They Die by Dawn" could be a '30s film noir title and clearly, just knowing your work, titles are really important to you. They feel as much a part of the text as the storytelling itself.
Samuel: Elvis, let me show you how much of a G you are. [You are] the only person that's ever said that. "They Die by Dawn" is my riff on the film noir "They Live by Night." "They Live by Night;" "They Die by Dawn." "The Harder They Come;" "The Harder They Fall." You're the only person that has ever, ever said that. It's a Nicolas Ray film with Farley Granger. Granger, and it's just like a dope, dope, dope, dope film.
KCRW: You must have connected immediately to Jay-Z because he loves movies. He loves comics and graphic novels, and he brings all these things together, in a way similar to the way you work.
Samuel: Yeah. From his first album, he was referencing Al Pacino, "Carlito's Way," and everything Jay does always has a cinematic element to it. And he's really a consummate storyteller. And he's a deep cinephile. People would think that our collaborative language is rooted in music, but it's not. I mean, it's always music and always film, but a lot of what we share is about film. It's about the more cinematic aspects of art than the musical aspects. And collaborating with Jay is like breathing.
He's a really insightful human being, and where he has a special skill is he can jump into any character's head and get into their psyche of why they'll do that, why they won't draw a gun because of his own experience. So, growing up at the time, he grew up in Brooklyn, that was like the Wild West itself. So he'll talk about why people draw a gun, why he wouldn't, why they'll fire, why they won't and where the fear sets in. It was really good picking his brain in that regard as well.