There’s a lot of buzz around The Harder They Fall, Netflix‘s upcoming Western movie with an all-Black cast. This star-studded film includes Idris Elba, Jonathan Majors, and Lakeith Stanfield, playing real historical outlaws and cowboys from 19th century America. However, one casting choice is proving controversial: Zazie Beetz (Deadpool 2; Joker) as Stagecoach Mary.
Born in 1832, Mary Fields is famous for a career she adopted late in life. At the age of 60, she became a stagecoach mail carrier, a dangerous job that involved defending the mail against bandits while driving across the U.S. She became an iconic figure both due to her adventurous lifestyle and her role as the first Black woman to take on this perilous job.
Beetz (who is 30) is obviously playing a heavily fictionalized version of Stagecoach Mary in The Harder They Fall, and while fictional historical dramas are nothing new, this casting choice prompted a specific criticism. Fields was a dark-skinned Black woman, while Beetz is biracial and has a much lighter skin tone. This led some viewers to accuse Netflix of colorism.
When Netflix promoted this casting choice on Twitter this week, numerous people pointed out the discrepancies between the real and fictionalized Stagecoach Marys. Some also highlighted the contrast between the male and female characters, since several of the male leads have darker skin tones.
Beetz is an acclaimed actress with several high-profile films under her belt, but her role in this movie seems partly motivated by Hollywood beauty standards. The filmmakers chose a young, slim, light-skinned woman to play a historical figure who was none of those things. Meanwhile, it’s virtually unheard of for an older, dark-skinned actress to play a lead role in this kind of movie.
Several other Netflix projects have been accused of colorism in the past, overlapping with a wider trend across the entertainment industry. The Netflix show Bridgerton was accused of placing light-skinned actors in prominent roles while sidelining darker-skinned characters, and the Netflix sitcom #blackAF faced similar criticisms. Again and again, audiences have noticed that the streaming service appears to opt for lighter-skinned actresses. This became more noticeable due to Netflix’s inclusive branding, which promotes the streaming service as a champion of marginalized creators and racially diverse casting. The key selling point of The Harder They Fall is that it stars Black heroes who were erased from traditional Hollywood Westerns, so a lot of people are frustrated to see this film play into colorist tropes.
The Daily Dot has reached out to representatives for The Harder They Fall.
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*First Published: Sep 29, 2021, 7:29 am CDT
Gavia Baker-Whitelaw is a staff writer at the Daily Dot, covering geek culture and fandom. Specializing in sci-fi movies and superheroes, she also appears as a film and TV critic on BBC radio. Elsewhere, she co-hosts the pop culture podcast Overinvested. Follow her on Twitter: @Hello_Tailor