The Legend of Nigger Charley


1h 38m 1972

Brief Synopsis

A Blaxploitation Western based on "historical research" about an ex-slave Charley, who rides into an Old West town like he's out for a night on 42nd street.

Film Details

Also Known As
Nigger Charley
MPAA Rating
Release Date
May 1972
Premiere Information
New York opening: 17 May 1972; Los Angeles opening: 24 May 1972
Production Company
Spangler & Sons Pictures, Ltd.
Distribution Company
Paramount Pictures Corp.
Country
United States
Location
Charles City, Virginia, United States; Hopewell, Virginia, United States; Richmond, Virginia, United States; Santa Fe, New Mexico, United States; Santa Fe--Eve's Ranch, New Mexico, United States; Shirley Plantation, West Virginia, United States; Tucson, Arizona, United States; Montego Bay, Jamaica

Technical Specs

Duration
1h 38m
Sound
Mono
Color
Color (TVC)

Synopsis

In Africa in 1820, young Charley and his mother Theo are enslaved. In Virginia twenty years later, they are owned by kindly plantation owner Hill Carter, who treats his slaves with respect and has taught Charley to be a blacksmith. Carter is dying, however, and his vicious son Houston, the plantation's new overseer, will soon take over the land and the slaves. When Carter offers to free Theo, she declines, but asks him to free Charley. Outside, after flirting with his beloved Leda, Charley is informed by his friends Joshua and Toby, a house slave, that Houston plans to sell them at a slave auction the following day. Carter later informs Charley that he is free, declaring his intention in a written note. Charley and Leda are having sex when Houston and the slave traders arrive and watch, making lecherous, cruel comments. Charley is helpless against them, but upon seeing Houston beat Leda, he cannot contain himself and punches his master. Houston explodes in a rage and, after having the other men beat Charley, destroys the note granting the slave his liberty. During the sale, Toby frees Charley from where he is tied up in the barn and informs him that Joshua awaits them in the woods with horses. Meanwhile, as Carter dies, a drunken Houston decides to pistol-whip Charley, arriving just as Charley is preparing his escape. Charley beats Houston to death, then he and Toby race to meet Joshua, with whom they flee west. They are followed by a posse headed by slave catcher Niles Fowler, enraged at Charley's mettle. Wearied by the constant running, the former slaves manage to stay one step ahead of the posse for weeks. At one point along the trail, they are surrounded by curious Indians who wipe their faces to discern if the dark pigment will come off of their skin. Exhausted, they finally arrive at a small town, where the white inhabitants stare at them with suspicion. At the stable, the owner at first refuses to care for their horses, but Charley forces his money into the man's hand and stalks off, fascinating the young, black stableboy, Willie. The men enter the saloon, prompting a halt to all activity. The bartender ignores them, but when a patron calls Charley a "nigger," Charley beats up the man and everyone flees. Toby takes over behind the bar and the men joke, but soon admit that there will be no end to their troubles. Outside, the whites gather, led by Sheriff Rhinehart, who enters and respectfully asks them to leave town, as Fowler is nearby and the sheriff hopes to protect the townfolk. However, Charley states that they are through running, and will face their detractors. Rhinehart then rides out to meet Fowler in the hope of dissuading him, but is unsuccessful. Shadow, a black man who claims to be an Indian, enters the saloon and charms the men with his tall tales about his five former wives and missing leg, proclaiming his need to witness for himself the novel sight of three black gunfighters. Rhinehart returns and, as Fowler's men gather outside, tries to negotiate with them, but is shot in cold blood. In the ensuing shootout, the posse is disbursed and Charley kills Fowler. One man is left inside, unseen, and has Charley in his sights when Willie, who has been hiding on the stairwell, expertly shoots him down. As the trio, along with Willie, prepare to leave town, local farmer Dewey Lyons offers them work protecting his family in exchange for food and lodging. Because his wife Sarah is half Cherokee, no one else will help them against an outlaw who calls himself the Reverend, and steals from them every few weeks. When Charley declines, stating that they are not gunfighters, the couple is disappointed but understanding. Further up the trail the group finds Shadow, who offers them food and asks to join their party. That night, Charley cannot stop thinking about the plight of the Lyonses, and tells Toby that they have the same trouble, because of the color of their skin. Toby counters that Charley is attracted to Sarah, but Charley insists on going back, and although he does not ask his friends to accompany him, they follow loyally. The Lyonses are thrilled to see them, and at dinner explain that the Reverend tortured and killed Dewey's brother, and although they now give him anything he wants, they refuse to leave their land. The next day, when the Reverend's men show up and terrorize Sarah, Charley kills two and tells the other to inform his boss. The Reverend arrives the following day with a group of fifteen armed men and calls out to Charley. Using Biblical language, he declares that Charley's blackness has "seeped into his heart." A gunfight breaks out and the motley group emerges triumphant, but the Reverend vows to return. That night, Sarah visits Charley in the barn and asks why he came back. Charley admits his attraction to her, questioning why she stays with Dewey, but she points out that no matter where they go, people will refuse to help them. They kiss, but are interrupted by one of the Reverend's men, who attacks Charley with a knife. After a protracted fight, Charley overcomes him, then tells the man to leave. When the Reverend returns, his large group of men attack from higher ground and opposite directions, forcing Charley's group to struggle to pick them off as they come. Joshua is shot, and although Toby jumps into the line of fire to rescue him, he is too late. One man breaks into the house on his horse and kills Willie. Finally the Reverend strides in and kills Shadow, then stands off with Charley, who shoots him down, then throws his gun to the ground in disgust and states "The lost tribes of Israel were black." Now that the Lyonses are safe, Charley takes off with Toby, leaving Sarah with her husband. Knowing there will be trouble for them everywhere, the duo travel on aimlessly.

Film Details

Also Known As
Nigger Charley
MPAA Rating
Release Date
May 1972
Premiere Information
New York opening: 17 May 1972; Los Angeles opening: 24 May 1972
Production Company
Spangler & Sons Pictures, Ltd.
Distribution Company
Paramount Pictures Corp.
Country
United States
Location
Charles City, Virginia, United States; Hopewell, Virginia, United States; Richmond, Virginia, United States; Santa Fe, New Mexico, United States; Santa Fe--Eve's Ranch, New Mexico, United States; Shirley Plantation, West Virginia, United States; Tucson, Arizona, United States; Montego Bay, Jamaica

Technical Specs

Duration
1h 38m
Sound
Mono
Color
Color (TVC)

Quotes

Trivia

Notes

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.

Miscellaneous Notes

Released in United States 1972

Released in United States 1995

Released in United States 1995 (Shown in New York City (Film Forum) as part of program "Blaxploitation, Baby!" June 23 - August 10, 1995.)

Released in United States 1972