Friday, October 17, 2008

White Man’s Town…Black Man’s Law

It's hard to imagine a time when you could drive past a movie theater and see the words "BOSS NIGGER" on the marquee—and referring to a PG-rated film, no less. Fred Williamson, who wrote, produced and starred in the film, admits the title was intended to be exploitative and draw attention to his likable but low-budget western. Since he had already starred in THE LEGEND OF NIGGER CHARLEY and THE SOUL OF NIGGER CHARLEY, which were blaxploitation hits for Paramount, it clearly didn't take the former football star known as The Hammer long to figure out how marketing could affect his box office grosses as much as, if not more than, the film's actual quality.

1975's BOSS NIGGER, which opens with an incredibly funky theme song performed by a singer credited only as Terrible Tom, could almost be another NIGGER CHARLEY sequel, as it again stars Fred as a big, handsome western hero, ready to bust up and shoot it out with anyone black, white or purple who gets in his way, and sidekick D'Urville Martin as his comic sidekick (this was the sixth film the two men made together; they went on to do three more). This time, the Hammer is Boss, a bounty hunter who rides into a very white small town and installs himself as sheriff, which upsets the racist townspeople, many of whom had never seen a black man before. Boss and Amos (Martin, later the director and co-star of the trash classic DOLEMITE) have really come to claim the huge reward on Jed Clayton (William Smith), whose vicious gang has the entire town, including the corrupt mayor (R.G. Armstrong), cowering in fear.

Almost as surprising as the film's title is its choice of director. Jack Arnold made his name at Universal-International during the 1950s, where he directed many science fiction films that became classics, such as CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE and TARANTULA. Once non-genre fans look past the campy titles, they usually discover that Arnold's films were generally quite good, and their success ensured him a long career behind the camera.

However, by the time BOSS NIGGER rolled around, Arnold had been almost exclusively a television director, helming episodes of IT TAKES A THIEF, GILLIGAN'S ISLAND, PETER GUNN, THE BRADY BUNCH and LOVE, AMERICAN STYLE. He had previously collaborated on the unfortunately little-seen private-eye actioner BLACK EYE with Williamson, which is how Arnold came to also direct BOSS NIGGER.

What is obvious about the film is its short budget and shooting schedule. Almost every shot is a master or medium shot, which unfortunately hurts the supporting characters that are rarely given close-ups to help establish their characters. Noted character actor Bruce Gordon (THE UNTOUCHABLES), who plays a shopkeeper, is one who suffers this fate, as is Ben Zeller, who has a pivotal role as a blacksmith, but would be hard to identify without his blond beard.

Arnold does a good job keeping the film afloat, and its real weakness is Williamson's screenplay, which is full of holes and surprising shifts in tone that the movie doesn't earn. The performances are very good—Williamson's sense of humor about himself was always a great contrast with his good friend and blaxploitation rival, Jim Brown—with the chemistry between the Hammer and Martin filling in a lot of blanks about their characters and what they mean to one another. Smith, who had been Williamson's foe in HAMMER and had just made BLACK SAMSON for Warner Brothers, is just about the only actor who could believably go toe-to-toe physically with big Fred and make it look real.

Kit Parker Films has given BOSS NIGGER a welcome DVD release, the only mild caveat being that it has been retitled—on the box art and the menus only—BOSS, which is probably the title it was actually filmed as anyway. I don't believe BOSS NIGGER got a VHS release in the U.S., and a previous and possibly unauthorized DVD was severely cropped and censored, notably the word "nigger" being snipped out of the dialogue and the title song. The Kit Parker DVD has been approved by Williamson, who has added a brief statement to the film that stipulates, yes, the "N-word," as he puts it, is thrown around a lot, but you'll notice that everyone who calls me one regrets it later.

Kit Parker's print is complete and uncut in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio and with the original Dimension Films logo at the beginning. Considering the movie's rarity and inexpensive production, the print looks quite fine with appropriate audio. Williamson sits down for a lengthy interview, much of which is devoted to his football career, which I haven't seen him discuss much. Associate producer Myrl Schreibman (PARTS—THE CLONUS HORROR) talks about the movie in a separate interview, and also heads a short tribute to Jack Arnold, who was Schreibman's mentor (the two met while Arnold was producing Robert Wagner's IT TAKES A THIEF television series). The original BOSS NIGGER trailer is also included.

BOSS NIGGER isn't top-tier Fred Williamson, but it's better than most of the programmers the filmmaking pioneer directed himself. It's lively and witty with a good cast. Besides the frequent racial epithets, it lacks profanity, sex and bloodshed, which feels like an appropriate decision. While it obviously has something to say about race, it's ultimately an old-fashioned western about good guys and bad guys. And it has that great music, which was also released on a soundtrack album. I wonder how many of those are floating around out there.

1 comment:

buy generic viagra said...

this movie is hilarious racist! why the producers didn't release a sequel of this crap XD ?