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The film's working title was Nigger Charley. The opening credits showed "Charley" as a baby in Africa during 1820, when he and his mother "Theo" were enslaved. The closing credits noted that the soundtrack was available on Paramount Records and that the film was shot on location in Charles City, VA and Eve's Ranch, Santa Fe, NM. In addition, contemporary sources add Montego Bay, Jamaica, Tucson, AZ, Richmond and Hopewell, VA and Shirley Plantation in West Virginia as locations.
According to a November 1970 Variety news item, the film was originally set to begin January 1971 in Colombia. At that point, Woody Strode had been cast in the lead role, but September 1971 Variety news items reported that Strode "changed his mind" and instead former professional football player Fred Williamson would star. Daily Variety announced in January 1971 that the film would deal with a black man fighting Indians and be shot in Spain, but an article the following day stated that "as a direct consequence of [the] story," the Screen Actors Guild received dozens of letters from Native Americans protesting the depiction of their people. As a result, the article stated, the production was moved to New Mexico. Producer Larry G. Spangler stated in the Daily Variety article that the film would emphasize the black hero rather than the Indians, and quoted the budget at $750,000.
The Legend of Nigger Charley marked the feature film writing debut of James Bellah, son of noted author and screenwriter James Warner Bellah. In a March 1972 Variety article, Spangler cited a Tricia O'Neal Keith novel entitled Story of Inyo as a basis for the film; however, neither screen credits, the SAR nor any other source mentions the novel. That article also stated that the musical group War would record the soundtrack, but they are not included in any other source.
Martin Goldman, a television commercial director, made his feature film directing debut with The Legend of Nigger Charley. As noted in Filmfacts and contemporary interviews, Spangler and Goldman disagreed during the production, and Goldman subsequently distanced himself from the final film, stating he was "in no way a party to the editing or scoring of the film" and that some scenes had been added after he set the shooting script. Spangler proclaimed in a July 1972 Variety article that he had ordered the film to be reedited, and that Goldman was "lucky I let him finish it." The Daily Variety review added that the Writers Guild was called in to arbitrate whether screenwriting credit would be awarded to Goldman alone; the onscreen credit is shared between Goldman and Spangler.
After its release, the film engendered controversy because of its title. A June 1972 Hollywood Reporter article noted that newspapers in cities including Cleveland and Kansas City were running ads for the film under the name The Legend of Black Charley. Williamson responded to the criticisms, stating in the June 1972 Hollywood Reporter article that the use of the pejorative word had "helped defang the term of its historic opprobrium." In an August 1972 Variety article, Spangler added, "Nigger is boxoffice," and declared his intention to film a sequel with the word in the title.
Despite universally poor reviews, the film was a box-office success. Spangler estimated in the July 1972 Variety article that "90 percent of the take so far has come from black patrons." The picture's sequel, 1973's The Soul of Nigger Charley, was directed by Spangler and starred Williamson and D'Urville Martin.