Saturday, September 3, 2016

The Legend of Nigger Charley (1972)



          If you watch enough Fred Williamson movies, you begin to forget how potent he was in his prime, simply because so many of the pictures that he produced and/or directed himself are unspeakably bad. That’s the context for my experience of The Legend of Nigger Charley, a decent B-picture likely consigned to obscurity because of its title. As directed by Martin Goldman, the film has a familiar storyline and a serviceable vibe, so it neither breaks new ground nor soars with artistry. That said, it has a bit of an edge, because the title character is a slave who becomes a folk hero by killing the white man who callously destroyed the slave’s emancipation papers. Circumstances transform the slave into a gunslinger, and he inspires awe from frontier types who’ve never seen a black man control of his own destiny.
          The picture opens in Africa, with punchy black-and-white scenes showing a baby and his family being ripped from their ancestral home amid a flurry of bloodshed. Cut to twentysomething years later, and the baby has grown into Charley (Williamson), a muscular blacksmith working on a Southern plantation. The plantation’s dying master offers to grant his favorite slave, Theo (Gertrude Jeannette), her freedom, but she asks for the favor to be given to her son, Charley, instead. Before Charley can leave, he gets into a quarrel with the master’s heir, leading to the man’s death. That’s how Charley becomes a fugitive, and he takes his friend, house slave Toby (D’Urville Martin), with him. Eventually, their gang grows in size and stature until they’re hired by farmers to protect them from an evil preacher who runs a protection racket.
          The movie’s narrative gets fuzzy soon after Charley leaves the plantation—every act has a new villain, and the story never loops back to pay off threads from the vibrant opening scenes—and the wandering-avenger theme is trite. By the end of the picture, the Charley character has become so generic he could be played by, say, Lee Van Cleef. Yet every so often, the folks behind The Legend of Nigger Charley remember what makes this material unique, so, for instance, there’s a terrific scene with an old eccentric named Shadow (Thomas Anderson), who storms into a bar where Charley’s gang is under siege just so he can say he’s seen everything. Although a direct sequel called The Soul of Nigger Charley followed in 1973, Williamson’s 1975 flick Boss Nigger tells a separate story. As others have noted, The Legend of Nigger Charley was likely among the inspirations for Quentin Tarantino’s violent hit Django Unchained (2012), another story about a slaved-turned-gunslinger.

The Legend of Nigger Charley: FUNKY

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