The film stars Fred Williamson as Nigger Charley. The film is rated PG in the United States. It was followed by two sequels, The Soul of Nigger Charley and Boss Nigger. The film was renamed The Legend of Black Charley for broadcast television.
The opening scene includes Charley as a baby with his mother Theo in Africa. The two are forced into slavery. Twenty years later, Charley kills an abusive plantation owner and flees with his two friends, Joshua and Toby. As they run away from the slave catchers, the trio experience racism, standoffs and romance, specifically in a small town. After Joshua is killed in a standoff against the town's outlaw, the film ends with Charley and Toby leaving the town to continue traveling with no destination. According to the reviewer in the New York Times, "For all the feverish activity, there has yet to be a film of rounded merit--one of skill, imagination and impact--about the black man and the Old West. Sadly, The Legend of Nigger Charley is fair. Fair only." Fred Williamson as Nigger Charley
D'Urville Martin as Toby
Don Pedro Colley as Joshua
Thomas Anderson as Shadow
Jerry Gatlin as Sheriff Rhinehart
Alan Gifford as Hill Carter
Will Hussung as Dr. Saunders
Gertrude Jeannette as Theo
Fred Lerner as Ollokot
Marcia McBroom as Leda
Bill Moor as Walker
Tricia O'Neil as Sarah Lyons
John Ryan as Houston
Doug Row as Dewey Lyons
Joe Santos as Reverend
This film was the debut movie for commercial director Martin Goldman. However, after many disagreements with the producer, Goldman distanced himself from the production. Larry Spangler, the producer, envisioned the film. To assure a degree of accuracy, he spent months researching that period during the 1800s. At first, Woody Strode was cast in the lead role but Strode changed his mind and dropped out. When Spangler continued the process of casting, he saw several top actors. However, he chose Williamson for “his right stature, the feel, the stamina, fervor, and virility of Nigger Charley…” Fred Williamson at that point had never shot a gun or been on horse. He spent a total of one week working on both skills. Spangler wanted an authenticity to the setting. Thus, they filmed at an actual plantation, Shirley Plantation, in Virginia. Shirley Plantation was actually owned by the Carter family. This plantation is known for being the birth spot of General Robert E. Lee, the leader of the Confederate forces in the Civil War.
When the film first advertised, the film promised black men fighting Indians. The advertisement and plot line caused a backlash from the Native Americans. They protested their depiction. Specifically, there is a scene in the film where Charley, Toby and Joshua run into a group of Native Americans. They approach the trio and begin to touch their skin trying to see whether the black color would rub off. This was extremely offensive to the Native American community and many chose to send letters. This is why the production was moved from Colombia to New Mexico.
However, most of the controversy was centered on the title of the film. Some found the name so offensive that the newspapers actually edited the name in the advertisements to The Legend of Black Charley, or just Black Charley. Williamson said, “I called it Nigger Charley because it was controversy. The word nigger in the ‘70s was hot. Controversy is what sells.” He later explained that he believed the movie was helping to take back the meaning from the historical defamation. The movie helps reinforce the expected interaction between black and white people regarding the racial slur. White characters were chastised and punished for using the word while black people were free to use it flippantly. Throughout the film, they say it as a badge of honor, “signifying their willingness to defy the paralyzing constrictions of white society.” This paradigm is a reflection of what was occurring at the time regarding who was “allowed” to say the “N word.”
In response to the controversy, Don Pedro Colley stated that racism is just a part of life and trying to cover up that point of history would be pointless. He also mentioned that he viewed the film as the black Indiana Jones and felt that the media was sensationalizing the film to be more controversial than the movie truly is.
Self-determination and liberation are two of the major tenets of the Black Power movement. This film was created in the midst of the movement. Williamson said that black audiences wanted “new and liberating images of themselves.” He was explaining why the film was such a box-office hit, especially amongst the Black community. Previously, most films included black people who always lost or ended up with the short end of the stick. Usually, black characters end up dead or in jail. Williamson claims that The Legend of Nigger Charley revolutionizes images of black people by showing them as the heroes.
The movie also largely deals with white defiance. In one of the scenes, Charley has sex with a woman while a group of white men watch out of resentment. Furthermore, the movie links with the theme of white supremacy immediately via the soundtrack. Simultaneously the soundtrack reminds the viewers that Charley has no interest in fitting into a social norm of respectability, specifically in white society. The song in the beginning, sung by Lloyd Prince, includes the lyrics, “Nigger Charley is what they call me/ that’s my white folks name/ Black is what I am.” However, some people did not view the white defiance and self-determination in the film empowering. Some were skeptical believing that a white, Jewish director was trying to divide and conquer the black community in Hollywood by making audiences detest white men. But once asked about how Don Pedro Colley felt about working with a white director on such a racial film, he responded that he is “involved in history.” He also states that social and media politics are ridiculous and a waste of time and energy. Blaxploitation was a result of a financial hardship in Hollywood between 1969 and 1971. In combination with the themes of the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Power Movement, a series of low-budget movies were made with black actors and actresses. Although the films often included empowering images of black people, typically defying white supremacy, the films exploit black audiences for the monetary power of white producers. Additionally, they traditionally reinforced heteronormative gender roles and sexist ideologies of masculinity and femininity. Furthermore, the The Legend of the Nigger Charley, plays into a similar theme.
The character of Charley is empowering in the sense that he frees himself rather than someone else freeing him. He also defeats the enemy and refuses to support white societal view of a respectable black man. Throughout the film, he asserts himself against racist white people and gains the admiration of those around him. Similar to the other protagonist in most other Blaxploitation films, Charley has sexual allure and gratifies a woman in the beginning. Furthermore, his sexual act was an act of white defiance in itself as the white men watched. In Blaxploitation films, the protagonist may use sex as white defiance, sometimes by sleeping with white women. Furthermore, Blaxploitation often includes violence, blood, gore and sex to attract an audience. The Legend of Nigger Charley includes all of the above.
Last, the Blaxploitation genre profited white producers the most. Although the film has black actors, targets black audiences, and depicts the oppression of the black community, the producer of this film is white. This creates an element of controversy revolving around the true intention of these films alongside the use of a racial slur in the title. Many believe that in line with the Black Power movement, the money produced by the film should stay in the black community. The Blaxploitation genre is criticized for promoting and continuing the disenfranchisement and economic exploitation of black people.
The 2012 Quentin Tarantino film Django Unchained is based on The Legend of Nigger Charley, The Soul of Nigger Charley, and Boss Nigger. As such, Django has been criticized for being considered to be reflecting of the Blaxploitation genre. Django directly alludes to the films repeatedly but also has the same framework: a black protagonist defying the cruelties of a white supremacist society in the times of the slavery.
Unfortunately, Tarantino claimed Django Unchained was novelty. Most critics argue that his reliance on Blaxploitation films is obvious. For example, the premise of the first half of the film borrows from the plot development of The Legend of the Nigger Charley." Both films start with the protagonists becoming freemen. Then, through a journey in the West, they both encounter racism and defeat multiple characters as a black gunslinger. The scene where King Shultz and Django encounter the first victim, who is the sheriff, is gently borrowed from The Legend of Nigger Charley and Boss Nigger. All three films have similar entries into small western towns. Similarly, the saloon scenes of Nigger Charley and Django are almost identical. In Django, Shultz and Django are discriminatorily refused service. Shultz serves the alcohol himself after the barkeeper runs in fear. Comparatively, Charley frightens the white people out of the saloon and one of his friends serves the drinks. The film also steals elements of the Nigger Charley sequels, including the idea of a black bounty hunter who liberates the love interest. Boss Nigger follows the same plot. Similarly, in Boss Nigger, there is a scene in which there is a dead white man draped on the back of the horse. In Django, there is a similar scene when Django delivers a bounty.
The film received rather negative reviews. The Philadelphia Tribune stated, “The Legend of Nigger Charley which opened at the Goldman Theater Wednesday, may not be the worst picture I’ve seen, but offhand I can’t think of any that can top it.” The review goes on to explain how some of the atrocity of the film can be due to the genre it belongs to: Blaxploitation. This review said that this film and other Blaxploitation films insulted Black moviegoers’ intelligence. The opening scene, described as “nonsensical,” is thought to be an empty shot at showing nudity rather than an accurate and insightful depiction of Africa. Furthermore, this reviewer didn’t look kindly on the representation of the kind white plantation owner who freed Charley. The language in this review was patronizing and condescending to the image, “Then we jump to the story about Nigger Charley, a pre-Civil War slave who is freed by dear old massa on his deathbed thanks to the pleading of his kindly old momma.” Once again, the reviewer criticizes the exchange between another Charley and Leda as the inclusion of a pointless sex scene void of any plot significance. He considers the occasions of blood and gore for the sake of Black audience praise a cheap and insulting tactic. The humor was poor and the dialogue inane. Overall, Len Lear considered this film to be a terrible exploitation film.
The Boston Globe also had malicious words for the film, calling it “a racist Western.” Although there are black characters in the film, the film remains cliché, he states. However, this reviewer affirmed the movie's values by stating that the meaning would be different if viewed as a black child. The movie offers a different hero to look up to for, at the time, there were only white cowboys to emulate during children’s make-believe play. The film flips traditional tropes on their heads, as all of the black men are good and courageous in contrast to the white people of the film who are mostly detestable. As far as the acting goes, this reviewer stated that the actors either overacted or “walk woodenly through their roles.”