Former pro football defensive all star Fred “The Hammer” Williamson (the nickname sticking after his 49ers coach told him to stop hammering opposing players) would, like similar former gridiron superstar Jim Brown, make the leap to film - Williamson with popular early roles in Robert Altman's M*A*S*H, the boxing drama THE HAMMER, and TV appearances including classic STAR TREK (“The Cloud Minders”) and the aforementioned JULIA opposite Diahann Carroll. But it wasn’t until the popular (no way around calling ’em the) “NIGGER” trilogy that Williamson took creative control over his own cinematic image and soon to be legendary career.
In the first film, the episodic THE LEGEND OF NIGGER CHARLEY, Williamson’s title character is an abused slave who, along with best friend Toby (D’urville Martin - who’d appear as sidekick with him in subsequent movies), escapes, turns the tables on his former owners and proclaims, "I ain't never gonna be a slave again for no man ... I ain't taking no shit from no white man again; I'm a free man, and that's the way I'm gonna die.". At film’s end he and Toby set off for adventure westward.
In the immediate follow-up, THE SOUL OF NIGGER CHARLEY, the pair comes to the aid of a group of other former slaves battling an ex Civil War officer who seeks to capture and sell them all as forced labor below the Mexican border. Then in the third outing the duo are bounty hunters who, through a series of events, take the reigns of Sheriff and Deputy of the border town of San Miguel; then face off with a particularly violent (and bigoted) group of outlaws in collusion with crooked local elected officials (shades of 1970s “Watergate” here).
While officially not the third part of a trilogy (BOSS NIGGER was produced and distributed by independent studio Dimension and not by Paramount as were the first two films) it essentially is. While sporting different names Williamson and Martin are very much the same characters. And over the years fans and film historians have inexorably linked all three as the telling of one extended story: that of a former slave who becomes a bounty hunter then the bringer of justice to the oppressed of the antebellum American South and West - the same tale (told within the confines of a single film) as Tarantino’s DJANGO UNCHAINED.
While many had a problem with the film's title (and many still do), THE LEGEND OF NIGGER CHARLEY was, in a very post modern sense, the first film (and arguably the first time in contemporary pop culture) where the "infamous 'N'" was consciously and deliberately flipped from a label of derision to a symbol of self-empowerment. Paramount pictures even boldly took out a huge Times Square NY banner in the days before the film's release proudly proclaiming "NIGGER CHARLEY IS COMING!". During the course of the film the various slave owners and posse members in pursuit of Charley and Toby proceed under themistaken notion (an"empowering" belief of their own) that slaves have for so long been both labeled as "niggers" and put under foot, that now the two concepts are somehow linked, and that the word "nigger" itself carries an almost symbolic power not unlike a policeman's badge. In other words - you hear the word and it automatically reminds you of your place. Or at leat so they thought. They should have headed the film's popular tagline, "Somebody Warn The West, Nigger Charley Ain't Running No More!".
Django 2012 (Jamie Foxx) meets Dango 1966 (Franco Nero) in one of the year's funniest "in jokes"!
“N**GA PLEASE!” - DEATH & REBIRTH OF THE
BLAXPLOITATION FILM …
AND THE REBIRTH OF CONTROVERSY:
have to be very thoughtful of what we do and say on film. The
stereotypes that we have are often the stereotypes that we've
perpetuated. I broke them, but I also created some because everyone
thought a black woman is a 'whup your butt sista' all the time, and
that's not true."
- Pam Grier (COFFY, FRIDAY FOSTER, JACKIE BROWN)
As stated earlier, it's impossible to separate the problem many have with "infamous 'N'"s usage in DJANGO UNCHAINED from the fact that the film is the product of a white writer / director - these sentiments echoed in comedian Katt Williams' "Steven Spielberg doesn’t wanna be black, Quentin Tarantino thinks he is" statement. But this isn't new.
During the heyday of the blaxploitation film, the movement was (as is it's current offspring DJANGO UNCHAINED) simultaneously lauded by some as empowering while protested by others as demeaningly guilty of perpetuating broad racial stereotypes. And the attendant schism was just as contentious as now over the casual usage of “nigger” in dialog, titles and even song lyrics. Give a listen to BOSS NIGGER’s theme song - not exactly “The Way We Were”!
The Rev. Jesse Jackson
The Rev. Jesse Jackson's P*U*S*H (People United to Save Humanity) organization was a very vocal opponent of the blaxploitation film movement. And the NAACP, National Urban League and Southern Christian Leadership Conference would even unite in the formation of the influential "Coalition Against Blaxploitation". Along with Ron O’Neal’s depiction of a “heroic” pimp / drug dealer in SUPERFLY, they were particularly displeased with the titles of Williamson’s western trilogy. And it’s not hard to understand why. Keep in mind while some popular films of the day were helmed by African-Americans (SWEETBACK by Melvin Van Peebles, SHAFT by Gordon Parks and SUPERFLY by Gordon Parks, Jr.) most were directed, and nearly all were produced by Caucasians.
1971’s SHAFT itself was based on a novel and co-scripted by Caucasian author Ernest Tidyman, who’d also script that same year’s Best Picture Oscar winner THE FRENCH CONNECTION. It was produced by MGM. Larry Cohen, the veteran writer / director of IT’S ALIVE, Q, THE STUFF, PHONE BOOTH and CELLULAR, manned the director’s chair on Williamson’s BLACK CEASER, HELL UP IN HARLEM and the 1996 reunion film ORIGINAL GANGSTAS. BOSS NIGGER was helmed by the legendary Jack Arnold (CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN), and the bulk of some of the era’s most popular titles (SLAUGHTER, BLACK MAMMA WHITE MAMMA, BLACULA, TRUCK TURNER, COFFY, FOXY BROWN, SHEBA BABY and others) were produced by Samuel Z. Arkoff & James Nicholson’s American International Pictures - the same mini studio responsible for the Roger Corman films of the 60s, Scorcese’s BOXCAR BERTHA, and genre faves such as THE AMITYVILLE HORROR, THE LAND THAT TIME FORGOT, THE REINCARNATION OF PETER PROUD, FROGS, the Vincent Price DR. PHIBES films and many more. So there was a feeling by some of “the white man cashing in on the stereotyping of the black man”. Though this feeling was certainly not shared by all.
Excerpt - from BAADASSSSS CINEMA (2002)
With the benefit of hindsight (and a now slightly more tolerant society) it’s easy today to look back on the "blaxploitation" films with an at times (admit it) condescending and even disdainful attitude. For in the same manner many of the clothes fashions of the day (yikes!) now in retrospect seem to have “jumped the shark”, so did some of the attitudes inherent in the era’s films, among these the liberal sprinkling of the word “nigger” into dialog almost as much as usage of the definite article “the”. But once again, one has to remember the context of the era. Any member of a group (ethnic, gender, sexual orientation, those who are overweight, take your pick) is keenly and obviously aware when they - as an individual or body - is being “discussed” in hushed circles. And there is always an ironic sense of refreshing honesty in hearing those hushed comments finally voiced to one’s face and “aired out” where they can now be confronted “man to man” (so to speak). And, in spite of the fact that many had problems with "nigger"'s (perhaps) overuse at the time, that usage (Lenny Bruce and Pryor-like) managed to jam it's foot in the door then force open a new dialectic on race in mainstream media which otherwise may not have occurred for years.
In the same manner in which the independent Spaghetti Western shattered the Hays Code into post-Vietnam realism in mainstream films such as THE WILD BUNCH, so did the independent blaxploitation movement now make it permissible for major studios to address the festering wound of silent racism. In the 2001 documentary MAKING THE CONNECTION: UNTOLD STORIES OF “THE FRENCH CONNECTION”, actor Roy Scheider (who portrayed Gene Hackman’s partner Buddy Russo) relates his astonishment during an inner city screening of THE FRENCH CONNECTION, with a predominantly black audience, when after Hackman’s “Popeye” Doyle says, “Never trust a nigger”, how the crowed erupted with laughter and thunderous applause, grateful that the bigotry at the hands of “authority” - to which they’d long been subjected - was finally being honestly shown to the world. The gate was thrown open and there was no turning back.
Williamson and Martin lay down a new brand of law in BOSS NIGGER (1974)
The various titles of Williamson’s “NIGGER” trilogy were (and still are) a cauldron of contention. One of Paramount’s top grossing films of 1972, it's pre release was heralded by that Times Square “NIGGER CHARLEY IS COMING!” banner, but by the time of the film’s TV broadcast debut, public debate lead to it's renaming as "THE LEGEND OF BLACK CHARLEY". When the third film, BOSS NIGGER, came around the blaxploitation movement, having run it’s course via over saturation as well as wounded by repeated negative press, was by now on it’s last legs. And written and co-produced by Williamson himself, BOSS NIGGER would go out as a bold swan song, upping NIGGER CHARLEY in it's “post modern” self awareness, and even managing to work the publicly debated “nigger” word controversy into it’s narrative.
When Boss and Amos become Sheriff and Deputy of San Miguel, they enact and enforce a series of “Black Laws” within town limits; among them fines and / or jail time for anyone using the "infamous 'N'". There’s also the scene (one of the film’s highlights) where, as Williamson "whups up on” a villainous gang member, the man impotently spews the word “nigger” as a final gesture of defiance. To which Williamson replies “That’s MISTER nigger to you!”. Perhaps not ranking in the annals of movie quote history with "Frankly my dear, I don't give a damn!", "Leave the gun, take the cannoli", or even "May the Force be with you", it did emerge (in certain parts anyway) as one of the most popular and oft quoted film lines of the decade.
Ironically to a degree BOSS NIGGER’s distributor, Dimension Pictures (not to be confused with the later similarly named Disney company) seemed to fear the “Black Laws” of it’s own film, as at the time it was released in certain areas as alternately BLACK BOUNTY HUNTER and THE BOSS. In fact the currently available DVD of the film is simply titled BOSS.
Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor’s “N” word bottle (intended to rob the sting from the tail of the scorpion) had finally been uncorked and the genie released into the mainstream. Race relations had now become a (mostly) non-taboo subject for discussion in all venues - depicted in all it’s ugliness in award winning dramas such as ROOTS and THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MISS JANE PITTMAN, and even via the satire of BLAZING SADDLES as well as tv’s ALL IN THE FAMILY and SANFORD & SON.
But the “mountain top” was far from achieved, and the conflict over sincere art vs. crass commercial exploitation far from over. The final nail in the coffin of the blaxploitation era (along with it’s liberal usage of the infamous “N”) would be the Dino De Laurentiis / Paramount plantation drama MANDINGO (1975), which to great controversy and box office success, offered perhaps the most blatant commentary at the time: taking dual (some would say salacious) looks on the subjects of interracial lust as well as on America’s addiction to sports, the later via the graphic depiction of slave fighting - hinted at in the film as the origin of American boxing. "Liberal art" vs. "exploitation" is a fine line. The much lauded free-thinking liberal cinematic sexuality of the 1960s would, occasionally during the early 70s, reach a "tipping point" and at times veer into titillating mainstream "porno chic" with titles such as DEEP THROAT (1972), BEHIND THE GREEN DOOR ('72) and THE DEVIL IN MISS JONES (1973). There were those who felt MANDINGO had done the same.
Film makers such as Sidney Poitier, Harry Belefonte and Bill Cosby would join forces to offer alternate more positive black themed entertainment in the way of inspirational westerns like BUCK AND THE PREACHER and MAN AND BOY, along with a trio of immensely popular crossover comedy caper hits between 1974 - 1977: UPTOWN SATURDAY NIGHT, LET’S DO IT AGAIN and A PIECE OF THE ACTION. Having become not only “politically incorrect” but (more important within the film industry) commercially no longer viable, the infamous “N” word would go into cryo-stasis for almost two decades till reawakened to new-aged 1990s controversy with hip hop artists such as NWA and films like BOYZ N THE HOOD, DO THE RIGHT THING and TRAINING DAY as well as Tarantino’s TRUE ROMANCE, JACKIE BROWN and others. All of them would lead to arguably the biggest “infamous N” controversy to date - DJANGO UNCHAINED.