Williamson stars as "Boss," a see-gar chomping bounty hunter, dressed from head-to-toe in black leather. With sidekick Amos (blaxploitation favorite D'Urville Martin, who would direct the infamous Dolemite soon after this), Boss rides into the New Mexico Territory town of San Miguel, looking for outlaw Jed Clayton (William Smith) and his gang. Blackmailing hulking but weak-willed Mayor Griffin (R.G. Armstrong), Boss is appointed sheriff with Amos as his deputy.
The lily-white town is aghast at the very idea of lawmen that are, uh, African-American - needless to say, they use and the film is rife with racial epitaphs - except for the local blacksmith, doctor (Donald Barry), and a few others. Boss becomes friends with a starving Mexican boy, Pancho (Mark Brito) and rescues an attractive black woman, Clara Mae (Carmen Hayworth). A schoolmarm, Miss Pruitt (Barbara Leigh, who inexplicably is badly dubbed), also vies for the Boss's affections.
Boss Nigger is a lot like Blazing Saddles with fewer laughs and without expanding on the same premise. It was released about a year after Mel Brooks's spoof but, giving it the benefit of the doubt, could have been in production before Blazing Saddles was released. The first-half of the film has the same kind of humor: white folk incredulous at the notion of a black sheriff. They feel threatened and get all bent out of shape and become exasperated like Daffy Duck while Boss and Amos watch their extreme reactions with a mixture of amusement and bewilderment.
Martin, who functions like a Pat Buttram or an Edgar Buchanan in this, eventually posts ordinances fining whitey for using racial slurs and other slights, in a broadly comic but amusing scene. Mostly though, the racial satire doesn't amount to much; it certainly doesn't build on Brooks' film. Rather suddenly, the film turns a corner and the screenplay (also by Williamson) becomes grimmer, though curiously the racial aspect becomes almost inconsequential: (spoilers) Pancho is trampled under the hoofs of Clayton Gang horses, and Boss is captured, tortured and shot through the palm of one hand by Jed.
In a typically curious development, Mayor Griffin, who in the first-half of the picture had more or less been the straight man for Williamson and Martin's comedy, suddenly becomes a lecher who watches from behind a curtain as Clara Mae undresses, jumps in and out of a tub, and then he attempts to rape her. Not only is this an abrupt character shift, but it's also contradictory in the way the audience is supposed to respond: repulsion at the Mayor's slovenly behavior, titillation as he watches her strip.
The rest of the film, including its downbeat ending, is more in line with spaghetti Westerns of the '60s and '70s then the studio era oaters Jack Arnold directed in the 1950s. Though Arnold today is most remembered for his science fiction movies (Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Incredible Shrinking Man) and his TV work is the most visible (he helmed innumerable Gilligan's Islands), some of Arnold's best work was actually in the Western genre, in second features he made at Universal-International.
Unfortunately, Boss Nigger is sloppily made, with poorly chosen camera angles, ragged editing, unconvincing stunt work, and other elements that reveal a tiny budget and rushed schedule. Worse, the use of contemporary music, more appropriate to something like Hell Up in Harlem than a Western, has dated the film badly.
Williamson is okay but unmemorable here, unlike some of his other starring appearances before this. I think if the character had been more serious and less flip about his profession - especially in terms of what being a black bounty hunter hunting down white outlaws means to him - the picture would have been more memorable than it is.
Instead, Martin's performance comes off somewhat better; he plays the clichéd comic sidekick in amusing, unexpected ways. Armstrong also comes off well, then again he was (and is) one of the most reliable character actors of the last 50 years. Smith is well-cast, sadistic and unpleasant, muscular and threatening - he makes a worthy opponent for Williamson.
Video & Audio
A Dimension Pictures release now part of the Kit Parker library, Boss Nigger is presented in a region-free transfer by VCI that's 16:9 enhanced for widescreen TVs, retaining its Todd-AO 35 theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The image is a bit soft and grainy simultaneously, but okay. The Dolby Digital mono audio is likewise acceptable without being exceptional in any way. The film is preceded by a text introduction by Williamson that references this and two earlier films, The Legend of Nigger Charley and The Soul of Nigger Charley and in which he unequivocally approves of the film's title and its title song. It says, in part, "I used the 'N' word to create sensationalism at the box office and [it] was a success....You have to remember that all who used that word against me in those films regretted it." There are no subtitle or alternate audio options.
The feature presentation is preceded by three very enjoyable blaxploitation trailers, for The Education of Sonny Carson, Dr. Black and Mr. Hyde, and Black Shampoo. One for Boss Niggeris also included, and all are 4:3 LBX.
A Conversation with Fred Williamson runs about half an hour, with Joel Blumberg conducting a pretty good career overview interview that's fascinating and informative. At 70 Williamson looks great and his lack of modesty is amusing. It's 16:9 widescreen but as shot breaks the "180-degree rule." Producer Myrl Schreibman appears in two shorter featurettes, A Boss Memory and A Jack Arnold Tribute, both of which include interesting anecdotes.
Western movie completists and blaxploitation fans will want to look at Boss Nigger, even if the film isn't all that great. Williamson is still making movies, and I'm probably not alone in wishing that someday he'll revisit the genre with something much more ambitious with heroic black characters in a more realistically complex Western setting.
Film historian Stuart Galbraith IV's latest book, The Toho Studios Story, is on sale now.