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Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Cult Film Faves Not On DVD: The Legend of Nigger Charley (1972) review


THE LEGEND OF NIGGER CHARLEY 1972

Fred Williamson (Nigger Charley), D'Urville Martin (Toby), Don Pedro Colley (Joshua), Thomas Anderson (Shadow), John Ryan (Houston), Tricia O'Neil (Sarah Lyons), Jerry Gatlin (Sheriff Rhinehart), Gertrude Jeannette (Theo), Keith Prentice (Niles Fowler), Joe Santos (Reverend Jarvis)

Directed by Martin Goldman

The Short Version: Enjoyable blaxploitation western is slightly irritating in that it doesn't flesh out some very interesting characters settling instead for comic book mayhem and typical racial sensationalism treading dangerously on the outskirts of its 'PG' rating. Hopefully, a better, more complete version will surface one day to properly put this occasionally exceptional black actioner into perspective.


Set free by his dying master, Charley is beaten and humiliated by racist plantation workers. In a rage he accidentally kills the sadistic Houston. Charley and two of his friends make their escape and are pursued by a posse of vengeful slave herders and professional killers including the psychotic Reverend Jarvis.


Goldman's pseudo serious blaxploitation western occasionally wants to be a compelling piece of entertainment, but it isn't long before the exploitable elements take over as Charley goes from one mini adventure to the next. It's almost like two movies in one. The first half if Charley and company escaping prior to a bloody shootout in a town after being cornered by his pursuers. Charley and his two friends soon pick up a couple additional black compatriots along the way, one a young sixteen year old boy and another, a wily, dirty old codger.


The latter half of the film is akin to THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1960) with Charley protecting a white man and his half breed wife from the crazed Reverend Jarvis who terrorizes the weak. The requisite angle of interracial infatuation rears its head once more as it became an oft used plot device in countless other black action pictures and other genre related productions. Like several other movies, NIGGER CHARLEY was controversial upon its release no doubt spurred on by its incendiary title, but it didn't stop Paramount from backing a sequel the following year. Still, Fred Williamson himself understood the value, the importance and the business sense of such a picture during this time, and there were lots of them.

My original poster for the film. Note the 'PG' rating in the left hand corner. Also note the tagline at the top of the poster. I imagine nothing like this would be allowed today regardless of the movies message.


I think the title may be just as much a reflection of the time period in which it is set as opposed to being strictly about sensationalism. The title alone may be the only truly "memorable" thing about the movie as it isn't all that great anyway. There are some nicely done, dramatic moments, but they're few and far between and the out of place soul tinted score does the film no favors. That's not to say the songs aren't good, just they seem strange backing a movie that takes place out in the old west. There's even that 'wa wa' style music that accompanies so many 70's productions.


The opening of the film is particularly striking showing African tribes waging war and taking captives of their enemies in what appears to be a statement on man's propensity to wage war and dominate his brothers regardless of skin color. Bypassing a lot of potential, it's difficult to ascertain just how good it is since the only digital version available is a fullscreen, edited print apparently taken from a television version. With some expletives obviously drowned out, they left in dozens of strong racial slurs. Some of the characters are decently constructed, but I can't help but wonder if we're missing more. As they stand, they're predominantly comic book caricatures; efficient, thinly drawn they may be.


There is one scene that made me wonder if Mel Brooks was inspired for a similar scene in BLAZING SADDLES (1974). The scene involves Charley and his friends surrounded by Indians. The Native Americans touch Charley's face to see if the black rubs off. Charley reciprocates by rubbing the Indians skin in the same manner. A few years later, Williamson would seemingly reproduce some of SADDLES story conceits for his BOSS NIGGER (1975) wherein two black bounty hunters enter a town and take over as sheriff and deputy.


As much as I've enjoyed some of Williamson's movies, he mostly gets by on a plethora of charisma and comic book bravado as opposed to acting. THE LEGEND OF NIGGER CHARLEY is one of the actors best roles and performances. He really puts himself into this one and I imagine this picture was close to his heart despite the high exploitation content (including a cock fight) that frequently steals any social significance the film had attained. Don Pedro Colley was Baron Samedi from SUGAR HILL (1974) and one of the mutants in BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES (1970). D'Urville Martin was a familiar face in these movies and even directed and played the villain in the ridiculous classic, DOLEMITE (1974).


Tricia O'Neil (PIRANHA 2: THE SPAWNING) is the busty object of Charley's affection as the half indian, half white woman persecuted by the mad Reverend Jarvis. Larry G. Spangler, the producer and writer, took over directing duties for the sequel.THE LEGEND OF NIGGER CHARLEY (1972) delivers everything you'd expect from one of these movies. It has some genuine, yet subtle moments of poignancy. However, it is one of Williamson's better efforts especially in comparison with some of his Po' Boy Productions. It's worth seeking out and deserving of a better release.

4 comments:

Andrew Green said...

Man, they made some...interesting...films back in the day, didn't they?

venoms5 said...

Hell yes!

Yung Threat said...

Do you know if they made a book, after this film?

venoms5 said...

I have no idea, Yung. I don't recall one being mentioned in the Mondo Mandingo book, which is an essential read for the intriguing 'race hate' cinema of the 1970s. I reviewed the book here some time back, but below is a link to it at amazon...

MONDO MANDINGO

I also reviewed the sequel to this film and also the similar BOSS NIGGER also starring Fred Williamson. The upcoming QT DJANGO UNCHAINED appears to have far more in common with the Nigger Charley movies than Django for what it's worth.

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