Boss Nigger (Dir. Jack Arnold, 1975)
Ever since seeing a showing of Quentin Taratino’s latest cinematic offering, Django Unchained, I have developed what is probably an unhealthy obsession with exploitation films, specifically blaxploitation films. These films first found an audience in the early 1970’s a midst the backdrop of the Civil Rights Movement, and featured black actors and cultural norms in a time when cinema was predominately white in almost every aspect. For a group of people whose recent history was almost entirely composed of strife and pain, blaxpolitation films were a revelation. Suddenly, young black people could go to the cinema and see black icons live out racially-charged fantasies, instead of being subjected to the white-washed dystopia that had been pushed upon them by Hollywood since the very beginnings of motion pictures (The Birth of A Nation). Finally a genre had been created that purposely sought out minority groups as its main audience; instead of attempting to appease the middle-of-the-road, straight and narrow folks, there was now a group of film-makers looking to challenge and obfuscate the mainstream.
I will readily admit that I was first drawn to Boss Nigger due to its outlandish title, which assuredly was controversial upon its 1975 release, and still can’t be discussed at parties today without at least a little awkwardness. However, I was also intrigued at the premise of the film: two black bounty hunters arrive in an old west town to discover a void in power. There is no sheriff in town and the mayor is handcuffed in everything he does by a nefarious group of white bandits. The bounty hunters march right into town and declare themselves the new purveyor of the law. This set-up is a fantasy in and of itself: there were very few free black people in the times of the Old West, and those who were free tended to avoid directly antagonizing white people. But, by setting this movie in a time when relations between blacks and whites were so uneven, the director has chosen a time period that is perfect for an elaborate racial fantasy. As the audience is whisked back hundreds of years, they are provided an opportunity to relive their ancestors painful past, but this time the downtrodden will rise up and get the better of their oppressors (much like in Django Unchained). In this way, the term blaxploitation is misleading: these films aren’t exploiting black people, they are giving them a voice while at the same time helping them come to grips with hundreds of years of atrocities.
White people in this film can be categorized in only two ways: there are those who sympathize with the plight of minorities and treat the black characters with a modicum of respect, and there are those who treat the black characters as vermin, human filth to be looked down upon. In simpler terms: you are either with them or against them. There is no middle ground to be had when it comes to race relations in this movie. In the above screenshot, the filmmaker is clearly showing this idea in a visual manner. The spokes of the wagon’s wheel separate the bounty hunters from the white townsfolk, who are clearly uncomfortable being bossed around by people they view as beneath them. Visual flourishes like this are not altogether too common in blaxploitation films, but it further reinforces the idea that the two races are vastly different, and while the whites in the film would argue that they are clearly superior to the blacks, the actions and attitudes of the characters say differently. The titular character (played by black icon and popular football player Fred Williamson) is effortlessly cool, much like Richard Roundtree’s Shaft, he is always quick with a one-liner and makes almost every white person he comes into contact with look like a fool. A staple of blaxploitation films is characterizing white people as hysterical, mis-informed buffoons who are not only racist, but are also massively unintelligent. White people are often used as comic relief in these movies, and this film is no exception. After setting up shop in the Sheriff’s office, Boss and his deputy post up new laws all over town (see below) and a recurring joke in the movie is the white folk disobeying these new laws and being hauled off to jail. The movie literally has its black characters redefine the laws of a white-majority town, and this delivers a message that transcends the boundaries of the Old West. As blacks all over the country were fighting for equal rights and treatment, this movie goes even beyond that and puts blacks above whites. While this is obviously a hyperbolic statement, blaxploitation commonly ignored basic civil rights messages and opted instead for more outlandish revenge fantasies, in an almost therapeutic fashion. Blaxploitation was not propaganda attempting to recruit new members to the Black Panthers or start race riots, it was merely a way for these people to come to grips with their painful past.
Another interesting recurrence I’ve noticed in the few blaxploitation films I’ve had the pleasure of viewing is the treatment of women and romantic relationships. In Shaft, Richard Roundtree’s character has a steady, black girlfriend who he appears to care for deeply. However, he does not hesitate to bed an attractive looking white woman he meets a bar about halfway through the film. After their passionate night of lovemaking, Shaft wakes up the next morning and unceremoniously kicks the woman out of his apartment. Due to his relationship with his girlfriend, we know that Shaft is not just a woman-hating asshole, so it must be assumed that its white women he has an issue with. In many blaxploitation films white woman are treated merely as sexual objects to be used and thrown away, while black women are portrayed in a more matronly manner. Black women are often in committed relationships with black men in these movies and are always there to support and care for their man (especially after he has been shot or beat up). Boss Nigger is no exception to this trope, as Boss is shown to be quite affectionate towards the one black female in the movie, and seems to be building a relationship with her as the movie progresses. Her white counterpart, a school teacher named Ms. Pruit , is treated differently by Boss, however. He teases and flirts with her like he would a black woman, but most of their interactions revolve around her singing the praises of Boss, who often seems disinterested and distant when talking with her. This further reinforces the idea of blacks being superior to whites, and is visually encapsulated by the shot below. The cherry is put on this sundae at the end of the film, when a bloody, beaten Boss is cared for by Ms. Pruit. As she cries over him, she begs him to let her accompany him when he leaves town. Boss, who seems unphased by the multiple bullet holes riddled throughout his body, tells her that he has enough problems without a white woman following him around, and instead of using her name (which he assuredly knows) refers to her simply as ‘school teacher’. This interaction is a perfect encapsulation of the reversal of racial subjugation that blaxploitation movies practice. Whereas in reality it was whites who looked down upon blacks, mistreating them and abusing them, in these films the tables have been turned completely around.
This film is far from perfect from a pure film-making aspect, as there are multiple plot holes, some pretty bad acting and rather unimpressive stunt work, but I would argue that that is beside the point in examining the cultural significance of a film like this. The original audiences for works like this weren’t critiquing it as a work of art, they were most likely just thrilled to have their culture finally reflected onto the big screen. Some more screenshots follow, with some captions.