The television sportscasts I delivered over WSIU-TV when I was in college will be on DVD before THE LEGEND OF NIGGER CHARLEY is. Paramount, which released it to theaters in 1972 (and made a lot of money with it), apparently owns the rights, but I doubt it has the balls to splash a movie called THE LEGEND OF NIGGER CHARLEY on Best Buy's shelves. Even when Synapse released 42ND STREET FOREVER, VOLUME 1, a collection of exploitation-movie trailers from the 1960s and '70s on DVD, it displayed the titles of the films on the back of the box. Except for THE LEGEND OF NIGGER CHARLEY, that is.
CHARLEY is hardly an important movie, even in the blaxploitation genre, but it is sincere and occasionally interesting. The script by producer Larry G. Spangler and director Martin Goldman adheres strictly to the standard three-act structure. Charley, played by former pro football player Fred Williamson in his first major leading man assignment, is a slave who is freed by his kindly owner as a dying favor to Charley's mother, but is forced to bolt after killing the plantation's cruel new owner (the late John P. Ryan, who specialized in portraying unhinged sadists).
Along with Toby (D'Urville Martin), an avuncular comic-relief sidekick, and loyal, bald Josh (Don Pedro Colley), Charley escapes to a small town with a dim view towards blacks. There, the trio faces a showdown against the posse on their tail, which is led by a vicious slave tracker named Fowler (Keith Prentice). After settling that account, Charley and his party (which has added two more) agree to protect white farmer Lyons (Doug Rowe) and his half-breed wife Sarah (Tricia O'Neil) against the murderous Preacher (Joe Santos, who battled Richard Roundtree in SHAFT'S BIG SCORE the same year) and his rampaging followers.
It's hard to criticize NIGGER CHARLEY on a technical level, because the (obvious bootleg) print included on the Blax DVD is horrid. Ghosting, color dropouts, smears, audio static, and tracking errors abound on the full-frame image, which was clearly swiped from a television station's 3/4-inch tape (it has been censored for language and possibly violence and nudity, and appears to be missing up to seven minutes). Goldman, who didn't direct many other features, isn't exactly Sam Peckinpah (or even William Witney, for that matter), but the plentiful action scenes pack some punch and are given a degree of dramatic weight by dint of the attractive leads. This is one of Williamson's finest performances. While he would eventually come to walk through his later badass roles, relying on his (admittedly strong) personality to carry him, NIGGER CHARLEY finds Fred playing with more range and doing it well enough to make you forget he's ten years too old for the part.
THE LEGEND OF NIGGER CHARLEY, lurid title or not, was a very profitable film and not a lavishly budgeted one either. A year later, Paramount brought back Williamson and Martin to star in THE SOUL OF NIGGER CHARLEY, this time directed by Spangler and not as successful (though doubtlessly a moneymaker). While it seems virtually every blaxploitation picture of the '70s is now out on a legit DVD, even some really crummy ones, I wouldn't hold my breath for this one, though it apparently used to play on television as THE LEGEND OF BLACK CHARLEY. It's a compromise I'd be willing to live with if it would get the movie more exposure.