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Netflix's 'The Harder They Fall' is a fictional tale about very real Black cowboys


This past week, "The Harder They Fall" began streaming on Netflix. It's a classic Western revenge story that features a star-studded all-Black cast and tells a fictional tale about some very real Black cowboys. The film is one of many recent pop culture references to highlight the forgotten stories of African American cowboys. From stars like Beyonce and Megan Thee Stallion leaning into their Texan roots, to other movies, like "Concrete Cowboy," which tells the story of horseback riders in downtown Philadelphia. Zaron Burnett is a writer for MEL Magazine and host of the podcast "Black Cowboys," and he joins us now. Welcome to WEEKEND EDITION, Zaron.

ZARON BURNETT: Thank you for having me.

KURTZLEBEN: Of course. So let's talk about this. When we think of cowboys and cattle ranchers, it's really easy to think of white men, like John Wayne and Clint Eastwood, riding horses across the American frontier. We've seen those stories in Western movies for decades, so how does that get reality wrong or incomplete?

BURNETT: Well, just going by the numbers, there is this statistic that is commonly accepted, which is that 1 in 4 cowboys were Black. You can start to imagine how different that world and that representation of the Old West and the Wild West would be if you had that many Black cowboys throughout those films. So they've done a disservice not just to Black people who are, you know, our past as cowboys but also just to America and its sense of itself and that in the - we're basically being denied these much bigger, braver, bolder stories that you would get from the stories of Black cowboys that we don't get to hear.

KURTZLEBEN: Right. And I understand that there's a connection between the end of slavery and the evolution of the Black cowboy. Give us some context there.

BURNETT: Completely. That's actually a really important transition point in history, which is if you think about slavery, who would have been most likely the people to be dealing with livestock, to be out there clearing brush and doing the things that we associate with cowboys? It was the enslaved people. So when slavery ended, they're turned loose with nothing, and they have to make a life for themselves in America. So they take the skills that they have working with livestock, being able to make land available for agriculture. And they go and take those skills west. And they go and try to make a future for themselves. They become very, very good at working the land and working with animals because it is something that they had been doing, and it's something that they had a respect for. So it wasn't just an exploitative act, but it was an act of communion with the animals. There was a respect for nature that was part of why Black cowboys and just Black people of the West did so well in that setting.

KURTZLEBEN: Well, you talked there about Black cowboys in the West, but I also mentioned Black cowboys in Philadelphia. It's a big country. I imagine there are a lot of different subcultures. Tell us about how some of those have emerged.

BURNETT: Well, you have basically a very interesting tradition of urban Black cowboys, as you mentioned, in Philadelphia. They're also in New York. You can find them in Los Angeles with the Compton Cowboys. We saw during the George Floyd protests there were protesters on horseback in Houston and in Oakland. And so across the country in major metropolitan areas, you will find Black cowboys keeping that life alive. It's a point of pride and a point of American connection for Black people to know that we've been able to hold on to something that has been intentionally erased and denied to us as a way for people to understand our culture and for us to understand ourselves.

KURTZLEBEN: Right. Well, and we're seeing them on the big screen now, in popular music. Do you have a sense of why there is this period of recognition for Black cowboys right now?

BURNETT: I think it's twofold because this trend has been bubbling up. We see this - Beyonce had "Daddy Lessons" on "Lemonade." Or her sister Solange had her track "When I Get Home." You mentioned Megan Thee Stallion. They're all, you know, Texas-based performers. But Black cowboy seems to be kind of like a historical component for the Black Lives Matter movement. It's a way to say we've been here, this is our country. And we have a place that is ours, and that is the one that we made. And Black cowboys are evidence of that. They are a way to connect modern Black identities to not a timeless quality but the fact that Blackness in America has been a lot of things, and it's not always what you expect. So it is both a way for us to connect to our traditions but also to point out that Blackness is not monolithic.

KURTZLEBEN: Well, I know that in your podcast you tell the stories of a range of real-life Black cowboys. Tell us about one that you think would make a really great movie.

BURNETT: Oh, well, Nat Love, obviously, just got cinematic treatment in "The Harder They Fall," although it's not really based on his life. And also in the movie, there is Cherokee Bill. Both of those would be excellent movies. Cherokee Bill, for instance, was a Black outlaw who was the equivalent of a Billy the Kid, but most people have never heard of Cherokee Bill. There's also Chief John Horse, who was a Black Seminole who led an exodus from Florida to Indian territory and then fought from Indian territory to escape America by going to Mexico. So there are a few stories that I think that you could tell, actually, a lot of stories in the Black cowboy oeuvre that you could turn into award-winning films.

KURTZLEBEN: That's Zaron Burnett of MEL Magazine. He's the host of the podcast "Black Cowboys."

Zaron, thank you so much for joining us.

BURNETT: Thank you for having me.


BEYONCE: (Singing) With his gun and his head held high... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.