Robin’s Underrated Gems: Boss Nigger (1975)

As Black History Month comes to a close, I think it’s only appropriate that I devote a “Robin’s Underrated Gems” column to… a movie with the most racist word ever in its title?! Yes, believe it or not, a film with the title, Boss Nigger, was once released in theaters. And we’re not talking about the pre-civil rights era of the 1930s. The words, Boss Nigger, were actually plastered on theatre marquees in 1975, an era where the blaxploitation genre was at the height of its popularity. Not only that, but the film also managed to get released with a “PG” rating! Hell, it even had its own catchy theme song: “They call him boss… They call him boss… Boss Nigger!”. Needless to say, something like this would never fly today, which is why the film was released in some markets under the less controversial titles, Boss and The Black Bounty Killer. However, Boss Nigger is actually a pretty clever satire about the stupidity of racism and is also not the first blaxploitation film to use that particular word in its title. Years earlier, Fred Williamson and D’Urville Martin, the two lead actors here, starred together in The Legend of Nigger Charley and The Soul of Nigger Charley (not surprisingly, released as The Legend of Black Charley and The Soul of Black Charley in some places), which followed some escaped slaves and their attempts to win their freedom. Even though Williamson and Martin seem to be playing different characters here, Boss Nigger is considered to be a semi-sequel to those two films and could almost be classified as the third entry in the Nigger trilogy. That’s certainly a strange distinction to have, but Boss Nigger is a pretty entertaining western.

The lead character in Boss Nigger is simply known as “Boss” (Fred Williamson). As the film opens, Boss and his sidekick, Amos (D’Urville Martin), are working as bounty hunters when they shoot several wanted fugitives who are attacking a black woman. The dead men just happen to members of a gang headed by notorious outlaw Jed Clayton (William Smith). One of them is carrying a letter from the mayor (R.G. Armstrong) of a nearby town called San Miguel, inviting him to become the new sheriff. Boss and Amos take the dead outlaws to San Miguel in order to collect the bounty on them and learn that the corrupt mayor has made an arrangement with Jed Clayton and his gang to provide them with supplies in exchange for not harming any of the town’s citizens. Boss decides to use the dead gang member’s invitation letter to coerce the mayor into giving him the job of town sheriff and he immediately appoints Amos as his deputy. Naturally, the idea of a black sheriff does not go over well in San Miguel, but Boss and Amos use their newfound power to break Jed Clayton’s stranglehold on the town and weed out the corruption. They also seek to punish those partake in non-stop racism and convince the townspeople to show some respect towards a black authority figure for the first time in their lives.

Of course, Boss Nigger is hardly the first movie about a western town having to adjust to a black man being appointed sheriff. This film was released one year after Mel Brooks’ satirical western spoof, Blazing Saddles, one of the most successful comedies of all time. However, Boss Nigger contains a lot of interesting social commentary and does some clever things with its premise, so that it doesn’t feel like a cheap Blazing Saddles carbon copy. Fred Williamson was one of the biggest blaxploitation stars of the 1970s, but Boss Nigger was the first time he ever wrote the screenplay for one of his films and he tells an empowering story. Boss and Amos are very strong characters who show no hesitation about standing up to the racism they have to face and are constantly shown outsmarting the ignorant white characters. One of the film’s best touches is how Boss uses his newfound power as sheriff to institute a series of “black laws”, which include an automatic fine and jail sentence for anyone caught using the word “nigger” in public. While Williamson’s script was obviously inspired by Blazing Saddles, the film is closer in spirit to the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood. In fact, you could almost describe this as a blaxploitation spoof of A Fistful of Dollars with Williamson portraying a character called “The Black Man with No Name”. The director of Boss Nigger was Jack Arnold, best known for 1950s monster movies such as Creature from the Black Lagoon and The Incredible Shrinking Man, and while he’s no Sergio Leone, he does a decent enough job at directing some stylish and amusing gunfights.

Understandably, when Boss Nigger came out on DVD a few years ago, it was released simply as Boss. In fact, the DVD even contains a prologue before the movie where Williamson delivers a disclaimer about the film’s original title and explains his reasons for using it. Even though Boss Nigger features numerous gunfights, it contains no blood or graphic violence, which is why it was able to secure a “PG” rating. Of course, you’re probably wondering how it could be rated “PG” when the characters are constantly saying the N-word. Well, two years after this film, ABC aired the highly acclaimed miniseries, Roots, which featured multiple uses of “nigger” on prime-time network television. Their logic was that “nigger” was part of the everyday vocabulary back then and it would be impossible to showcase the inherent racism of the time period without letting that word be used. That’s not to say that Boss Nigger has the cultural and historical significance of Roots, but it has more social commentary than you’d expect from a low-budget blaxploitation western in the grindhouse era. However, even if you ignore those aspects, Boss Nigger is still a very entertaining genre film. Fred Williamson and D’Urville Martin have great chemistry together and make a very charismatic pair of heroes while William Smith and R.G. Armstrong (veteran character actors who did so many genre films during this time period that they could probably play these roles in their sleep) make wonderfully hateful villains. I highly recommend Boss Nigger to fans of westerns, blaxploitation films and the grindhouse era in general, as it’s a unique time capsule of a unique time period in cinema. And if you need something to put you in the mood for it, here’s the Boss Nigger theme song played on a non-stop loop for ten hours.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xo1ED1n_KfA

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