They Die By Dawn (2013)

Bite the Bullitts

Jeymes Samuel had a roundabout path to making films. Film was the English multi-hyphenate’s first creative passion: he videotaped his own movies as a kid starting at the age of 8 and dreamed of becoming a famous director. Then, while in high school, he started making music, too, which is where he made real inroads. His first singles were house music, but he quickly evolved his style to touch all sorts of genres. He worked hard networking and collaborating for a decade. In that time, he released some minor indie-scene hits that blended hip hop with various pop-rock styles.

In 2010, a lot broke Samuel’s way: First, he joined a choir with the unwieldy title The Purple, The People, The Plastic Eating People. With this group, he worked with some big music names, notably Gorillaz and Lou Reed. He also started publishing a project called They Die By Dawn & Other Short Stories… under the pseudonym “The Bullitts,” named after the 1968 film. This series took existing movie and TV themes, covered them with added lyrics, and filmed shorts to accompany each song.

Samuel roped in some big talent for these videos: Lucy Liu, Idris Elba, Rosario Dawson, and more. He earned a reputation as a rising talent for blending music and cinema, and was recruited by Baz Luhrmann to be music supervisor for The Great Gatsby.

The next logical step for Samuel was to pivot back to his childhood dream of filmmaking. He started, as many directors do, with a short film, which is this review’s subject. Samuel wrote, directed, scored, and co-starred in They Die By Dawn, a western that’s right on the edge of feature length, clocking in at about 50 minutes. It doesn’t quite proclaim the director as polished or visionary talent, but does point to some fresh ideas and suggest some skill working with actors.

The film is a proof of concept more than actual movie, but a nifty exercise nonetheless: It takes the swaggering antihero charisma of ’90s gangster movies and The Wire, with an entirely Black cast, and filters it through western tropes and iconography. Samuel connects the American myth of the lawless Wild West with Blaxploitation-style street martial law. It serves as a good companion piece to Hamilton, taking an element of American history rife with racist baggage and rebuilding it by empowering people of color. (Also, Django Unchained, which was released just a year earlier and is a likely piece of inspiration.) It is, above all else, very cool, blessed with a wildly charismatic cast headlined by Dawson, Michael K Williams (RIP), and Giancarlo Esposito.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t really hold together as an actual narrative at all: it’s basically entirely a demonstration of its concept and flavor, with production values that match a mid-season episode of a mid-level cable TV drama from approximately the same era. The story doesn’t progress so much as it spins a few cycles and stops. We meet some characters, enjoy some decent setup for a premise (four outlaws cordially decide to kill each other, the survivor claiming the other three bounties), witness one mini-shootout (barely even related to said premise!), and then we’re done, rather abruptly. If not for the strong cast, I don’t think I’d be able to tell most of the characters apart, as it’s a big ensemble with not much time to get to know anyone.


But the flavor is really nice, and Samuel adds some cool touches, like having his character perform a mood-setting song. He doesn’t display a particularly innovative profile; but, honestly, making a straight-ahead western that’s neither intentionally old-fashioned nor subversive or postmodern, manages to feel a little fresh, especially with the all-minority cast.

It’s tough to rate because it’s very intentionally a throat clear or a knuckle crack by Samuel for the movie he really wants to make. It would take several years, but he’d finally release his proper debut, another Black western, in The Harder They Fall from 2021.

Is It Good?

Nearly Good (4/8)

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