director Jack Arnold
I don’t know if Jack Arnold and Fred Williamson’s Boss Nigger is the most confrontational of blacksploitation films, but it certainly has the most confrontational title. Still so much so, the film’s DVD release has been simply retitled Boss. And while Boss would still be an appropriate title for the film, given the story, it somewhat denudes it of that brash black-empowerment cachet that pushes the film’s edginess to the far more dramatic.
Star Williamson, who had already appeared in a number of blacksploitation movies including Black Caesar (1972) and Hell Up in Harlem (1973), actually wrote the script of this revisionist Western. And in one of the more unusual pairings in Hollywood, legendary 1950’s science fiction director Jack Arnold is the man in the directorial seat.
Williamson plays “Boss”, the black-leather clad bounty hunter, who with his amiable sidekick Amos (D’Urville Martin), hunt down wanted white men and bring them to justice, dead or alive. When they find themselves in the small town of San Miguel with a notice allowing them to become the town’s sheriff and deputy, they lay down their own set of “Black Laws,” dictating respectful behavior from all citizens.
It’s easy to see that the character of Boss was a major influence on Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012), from the notion of a black bounty hunter in the Old West down to Django’s stetson.
Though the film has a few radical black power statements, dramatically delivered by Williamson and Martin, it’s not a deeply radical affair at heart. Arnold keeps the violence to a bloodless, almost television-style minimum (which is an interesting tack in post-Spaghetti Western 1970’s action fare), and maybe that is to the film’s ultimate detriment as a political statement.
It’s still quite the radical thing in and of itself, made during the height of the Black Power movement, the simple placement of a black hero in the (arguably) “whitest” of popular American film genres, force-feeding anti-racist behavior to the frontier town’s folk, and headed by the tough and manly “Boss Nigger” himself, tips the hand of deep-seated white fears and wrestles self-empowerment into the hands of the movie’s heroes.
Some have suggested that Williamson’s portrayal is at play with parody of blacksploitation roles he himself had already portrayed in a genre/style that even by 1975, only four years after Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, was already potentially played into hyper stereotype itself. On this point, I cannot say. I’m still pretty junior to the whole blaxploitation period and oeuvre.