The Legend of (word white people shouldn’t say) Charley

I’ve been curious about this series of Fred Williamson slavery-era westerns, and with DJANGO UNCHAINED coming at the end of the month it seemed like a good time to finally get to them.

As the old white patriarch of a plantation is on his death bed he wants to free his favorite slave, who took good care of him. She says she’s too old to start a new life and asks him instead to free her son, Charley (Fred Williamson). Charley works as a blacksmith, which makes me think this was probly one of the inspirations for THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS. But unfortunately he never uses his ironworking skills as a free man, not even in the sequels.

The slaves are all worried that their owner is gonna have to sell them to a different plantation, and some other white asshole is trying to make this happen, even to Charley, despite his impending freedom. They beat the shit out of Charley so he and two others, Toby (the bad, bad D’Urville Martin, as Dolemite would say) and Joshua (Don Pedro Colley), make a run for it. The three try to live free in the Old West, but they do experience racism and are tracked by asshole slave catchers.

When the white people at a saloon keep calling them the n-word they have to scare them all out and take over the bar themselves. Toby handles business as bartender and they have a good laugh. Yeah, freeing themselves was a good idea.

Charley is kind of their natural leader, because he’s Fred fuckin Williamson, he’s just more manly than anybody else. For some reason he knows how to shoot a gun, and he tries to teach the other guys how to do it. They even ask how he knows how to do it, and he doesn’t answer.

This is a cool idea for a movie, so it’s pretty enjoyable, but it’s not very well made. There are lots of slow scenes of riding around on horses with oddly matched music. And because it’s 1972 and there were no Native Americans in 1972 (?) they have a bunch of white guys with black hair and headbands to represent them. The characterization of Charley is not entirely consistent – early on he acts scared, trying to play this character who’s been enslaved his whole life, but once he leaves the town he instantly switches to the usual Fred Williamson stone cold badass role. There’s not really an evolution there, it just happens.

But they have some adventures and get in some battles and at the end Charley and Toby are still standing, trying to decide which way to walk to get to their sequel. “It don’t make a difference where we go, Toby,” Charley says. “There’s trouble for us everywhere.” Pretty badass.

The old man that owns Charley in the beginning fits into that “nice slave owner” myth that I said MANDINGO was criticizing. It’s kind of weird that Williamson would be in a movie that has that in it, but of course then Charley doesn’t even need to be freed by him, he frees himself and allows no man to enslave him. It becomes an appealing wish fulfillment story, with Charley, Amos and Joshua standing up for themselves and putting racists in their place. They’re very easy to root for.

You know what’ s weird, for some reason these movies are not really available. The DVDs I saw were from some small company that probly didn’t really have the rights. The first one is cropped and obviously transferred from VHS, the second one is from a film print but non-anamorphic and so old and rotted it looks like sepiatone. I mean, why wouldn’t some corporation want to–

Oh, I get it. The titles. I guess there’s a TV version called THE LEGEND OF BLACK CHARLEY, but even that seems a little taboo. If they changed it to DRAGON DYNASTY PRESENTS LEGEND OF THE BATTLE WARRIORS, they’re still saying Charley’s nickname throughout the movies, over and over again. It’s just not very commercial I guess. Although I guess back then it wasn’t as much of a problem, if it’s true what wikipedia says, that this was “one of Paramount’s highest grossing films of 1972.” (I tried to verify this, all I know is it’s not in the overall top 20 of that year. I know THE GODFATHER did alot better, for example.)

Back in the day fortunately most places just had one screen. I don’t think I would’ve wanted to go up to the ticket window and ask for this one by title. It could cause some real uncomfortable situations. They didn’t have the machines back then so you’d have to say that word to a human. Or, you know, “One for, uh, Legend of… (clears throat)… Charley please.”

“Which one?”

“Do you have that Fred Williamson movie?”

These days, you generally only run into that problem because of the other variation on the word that accidentally spilled over into White People Land when hip hop music took over. I’ve seen Method Man getting predominantly white crowds to chant things back to him that he probly shouldn’t, in my opinion. But the songs are catchy and some of these guys, I guess they feel like if Method Man gave them permission they gotta take the shot. I wouldn’t do it.

I used to think it worked to just substitute the word “ninja” in any troubling rap lyrics – “Droppin science like Cosby droppin babies / enough to make a ninja go craa-aa-zy.” Then I found out the Insane Clown Posse calls everybody “ninjas” and suddenly it seemed even worse than saying the original lyric.

Anyway, that’s a weird issue, but what’s actually shocking to me is to be reminded every once in a while that there are even some backwards motherfuckers out there who use the other one, the one they call Charley here. Apparently they have iPhones with them under their rocks. I’ve read a couple of these stories, like after Obama was re-elected, and the other day I guess some coverage of a speech he did interrupted Monday Night Football or something, and apparently there was a rash of neanderthals calling him that word on Twitter. It’s just amazing that those two things exist together, it’s like saying you bought AVATAR on VHS, it doesn’t compute.

In a way it’s a good thing. These fuckers are outing themselves to the larger world, and I’m sure many of them will be ostracized or shamed by people they know who didn’t know they were like that. The rest, I hope, will meet Charley.

Anyway, interesting movie, could be better, heart’s in the right place, I won’t talk about it out loud too much though. Too awkward.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, December 19th, 2012 at 2:19 am and is filed under Reviews, Western. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

33 Responses to “The Legend of (word white people shouldn’t say) Charley”

  1. When I’m singing along with rap songs, I usually just replace that word with “cracker.” It messes with some of the rhymes, and it completely ruins the message of at least one song on the new Lupe Fiasco album, but it could be worse.

  2. From a white European’s perspective, I often wonder if that one word would still be such a popular insult, if black people wouldn’t use it either and never tried to “take it back”. Or at least if they would let white people use it in a positive way too. The whole “I can say it to my friends and it’s cool, but when you say it, you are a fucking racist” makes it just a bigger taboo and way easier to push rage button, than when they would have stopped using it. Maybe it would be a semi-forgotten term like “negro” these days. (We all remember that word, but who still uses it? It is more a slightly edgy punchline, when you want to get a chuckle out of a senile sitcom character, who refers to black people like this.) Or even better, maybe it would have lost all its power by now!

    Here in Germany it is meanwhile legal to refer to cops as “bulls”. Back in the days it was a derogatory term (like “pigs”, which apparently is the Englsh version of it), but meanwhile a court ruled that calling a cop a “bull” isn’t an insult anymore, because it became over the decades more like a slang word, that even your Grandma uses every day. (Combinations, like “fucking bull” or “shit bull” still get you in trouble, when said into a police person’s face, though.) I know, not nearly the same, but it’s interesting how a former insult can became completely acceptable over time. (I still don’t buy that “fag” is synonym for idiots these days, without any homophobic connections. Doesn’t matter what those South Park fuckers say.)

  3. When I was 15 we watched Cry Freedom at school, and they had that scene where they make Biko call himself a “bantu” – It’s a sad moment because that’s a completely innocent word that the white SAs appropriated and turned into a racial slur.

    Then I heard this and I realised the appropriation thing can work both ways…


    Best thing you can do to somebody’s bad word is turn it into your own who cares word – dont make it a cool forbidden thing by censoring it, instead strip away its power, and at the same time assert your own power, cos only the most influential people in a society can change the meaning of a word. If somebody takes your bad word and turns it into a cool word – that means you lost, buddy.

    And you cant tell me Ice T never saw those Fred Williamson movies…

  4. One Guy From Andromeda

    December 19th, 2012 at 3:29 am

    I think it’s problematic not to call the movie by it’s proper name, and by extension the character. It’s like they sometimes want to release a version of Huckleberry Finn but call that guy in it Slave Jim or Black Jim. The whole point of these names in my opinion is exactly how horrible they are. It’s a piece of character and a piece of history that this guy’s life was so fucking shitty, not only did he have to work for an asshole for no money, had no freedom, but on top of it all they called him Nigger Charlie and it was the most normal thing in the world that he had to answer to. That seriously sucks, and that’s how it was.
    To whitewash this part of American history by pretending the word doesn’t exist does a great disservice i think.

  5. “To whitewash this part of American history by pretending the word doesn’t exist does a great disservice i think.”

    I feel the same way, it’s a lot worse to try to ignore history than to confront it

  6. I think the South Park episode “With Apologies to Jesse Jackson” has the best approach to that subject. I know that later they kind of blew it with the whole “it should be ok to use ‘gay’ as an insult!!” episode, but still. As a white person, you just can’t “get it”, so don’t try to justify using the word, don’t start whining about “my Black friends use it all the time, it’s so unfair”, just don’t use the word, period. It’s ok to not use it, it doesn’t mean you’re trying to pretend it never existed. I mean I never use the word “praxinoscope”, I still know it exists and is a semi-important part of cinema history, but I have nothing really funny or insightful to say about it, so I don’t use it.

  7. One Guy From Andromeda

    December 19th, 2012 at 6:06 am

    But context is important. If the guy is called Nigger Jim it is insulting to pretend he wasn’t called that. It’s making light of the horrible past.

  8. he used the word! DEATH BY EXILE!

  9. Back in high school, a friend and I decided the best thing to do was say “lobstah” instead of the n-word when rapping along with a song. So take that for what it’s worth.

  10. Editing a movie to bleep the word would be ridiculous, but I don’t think they do that (I mean, for TV I guess, but not for DVDs) and I can understand not wanting the word on your DVD cover, and I can understand a reviewer being uncomfortable with the word and not wanting to use it in the review. I don’t really get that “No, you should definitely use it, or YOU’re the bad person!” I mean, should we also start referring to, say, ex-cons by their matricule number, just to show that we acknowledge that part of their past? Is it insulting to use their name instead?

  11. Words are like drugs. You can use ’em or abuse ’em. Mentioning a classic Richard Pryor comedy album by it’s full, correct, and deliberately-meant-be-confrontational-and-start-conversations title? That’s using. Calling somebody the most notorious racial slur in the English language, or saying it every five minutes as a symbol of how “hip” and “down” you are? That’s abusing.

  12. One Guy From Andromeda

    December 19th, 2012 at 7:49 am

    If it was a story about a time when the guy was still a con and everyone referred to him as #324987, then yes he should be referred to as that in the story, to use something else because it is less dehumanizing would be insincere and whitewash the inhumanizing element of that situation. To call Nigger Jim Slave Jim, or Black Jim would take away from the horror of this poor guy’s existence and make white people look better (which is, in the end, why it is done).
    But i am not trying to tell anyone what to do, if it makes you uncomfortable to use it – don’t. Just thinking aloud here. It’s a very interesting situation with that word…

  13. Yeah obviously, SLAVE Jim would take away from the horror of that guy’s existence.

  14. One Guy From Andromeda

    December 19th, 2012 at 8:21 am

    Just ask yourself – would you redub Roots to get rid of the word and replace it with “slave”?

  15. As I said, I think redubbing or editing the movie itself is stupid. Even editing the title card at the beginning of the movie is stupid. But not using a word like that on a DVD cover or in your review, on the other hand, is perfectly understandable and not particularly offensive or ignorant to me.

    Being called “SLAVE Jim” would still be particularly shitty so I don’t see why it would take away any of the shittiness of that guy’s life, and “Slave Jim is too nice a name” is really the kind of argument that makes me think that some people really, really want an excuse to use a “forbidden” word.

  16. One Guy From Andromeda

    December 19th, 2012 at 9:03 am

    As i said, context is important. But even out of context i think Slave Jim is a much, much less bad name to call someone than Nigger Jim.
    I am not trying to make the argument that it is okay to call someone that. I think even “the N-word” is offensive, because it is kind of a way to enable people to call someone a nigger without doing it out loud. “He’s a real n-word, haha.” I heard that shit.

  17. What I hear in my head when this topic comes up:

    What’d he say?

    He said the sheriff is near!

  18. “Cracker”? “Lobstah”?

    Neighbor, please.

  19. I’d never use the n-word for the same reason I’d never say “cunt” in front of my mother – to do so would be disrespectful. I don’t care what the context is or who gives me permission to use it.

  20. The conclusion I ended up coming to on the N-word is that I never use it myself, but if I’m quoting another work of art that includes it, I generally will use it. I mean, I gotta say that the Gentleman from Andromeda is correct, the title of this movie actually is THE LEGEND OF NIGGER CHARLEY. I feel like it’s kind of dishonest to dance around that point, way too similar to the misguided efforts to go back and re-write Mark Twain and so forth. I mean, if you watched the movie, if you read the title, you’ve already tacitly supported it and might as well at least be honest about what you’ve done. I enjoy Wu-Tang’s “Shame on a Nigga.” If I’m not comfortable calling it be it’s actual title, I would feel like I have no business listening to it in the first place.

    On the other hand, sometimes it’s not quite as simple as that. My band used to cover the Dead Kennedy’s “Holiday in Cambodia,” which of course includes the line “Braggin that you know how the niggers feel cold / And the slums got so much soul.” I was kind of at a loss for what to do with that line, since the word is clearly important and chosen specifically to evoke the kind of awful person the song is attacking. But then again, the song is from 1980, when I imagine you could find a lot more people comfortably using the word. Nowadays, it’s so shocking that I ultimately felt like it would be too distracting; people would focus *only* on the word, and lose track of the rest of the song. I didn’t use it.

    Maybe more to the point, when you use the word you’ve got to understand that for some people, it just is always going to be a painful thing to hear. Fair enough, art is not there to make people feel comfortable, maybe it’s worth upsetting some people in the pursuit of artistic expression. But you gotta be honest with yourself that you may be causing harm, and you’ve gotta feel pretty damn certain that what you’re saying justifies doing that. Given this criteria, I frequently choose to soft-pedal the issue when there’s not much at stake. Heck, even the Dead Kennedys no longer use the word in modern performances (neither the reformed Kennedys with their new singer nor Jello Biafra by himself, seemingly the one thing they both can agree on). It’s just not worth bringing up that kind of divisive, repulsive context most of the time, for most situations. I expect DJANGO UNCHAINED will have plenty of n-words in it; fair enough, Tarantino felt like it was worth it to include, it’s his art and I won’t tell him not to. But I think he and other artists probably owe a more thoughtful consideration of why they’re using it than the “You can’t tell me not to!!” we usually get. I don’t think there’s any shame in seriously considering the harm you can cause by using the n-word and subsequently deciding it’s just not worth it.

    There’s a pretty good talking-head documentary on the subject, appropriately enough called THE N-WORD. Interviews include Sam Jackson, Method Man, LaVar Burton, Chuck D, George Carlin, Chris Rock, and for some weird reason Michael Rapaport, so it’s definitely worth a look.

  21. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uWJMpDWGSR8

    Does anyone else find it weird that America isn’t by any stretch the only country in the world to have had slavery so recently, but it’s got by far the most amount of notable movies about the subject? America basically inherited slavery from the British, who were still implicated in America’s practice of it with the slave trade, and we only abolished it a few decades before the US did, but I can’t for the life of me recall any movies or tv about the subject set over here. If anywhere else gets anything tackling it, it’s Ancient Rome, which is a dead culture that isn’t really around to feel shame about the whole thing any more. I guess because there were wars fought over it in both cases?

  22. There was a film a few years back, Amazing Grace, about British abolitionists. But I definitely think that slavery has embedded itself in the American psyche in a way that’s slightly different than other countries.

    First, a number of countries abandoned the practice long before we did, and many of them were adamant about stopping the slave trade. Even after we outlawed the importation of slaves, our laws were pretty lax, and there were a number of ways that smugglers still brought in slaves from Africa. And of course we fought a war that almost ended the country as we knew it about slavery. But I think one of the main issues that has kept slavery in the popular imagination in America is the fact that we think of ourselves as a country built on equality. In England you still have a titled aristocracy, which would be unthinkable here. And slavery shows what a bunch of hypocrites were really were (and are, to be honest). There’s reinforced hierarchy to our society, but a lot of people don’t want to acknowledge it. It’s based on class and race.

    My guess is that’s why slavery seems like such a major issue here. Of course, I’m only really knowledgeable about popular culture in the U.S. and nominally about England, France, and some East Asian countries, so maybe there’s a lot more about slavery in the novels and films of other countries that I’m unaware of. I did read a South African novel about slavery a number of years ago (Unconfessed), so it’s still relevant other places. I’m really not sure how this issue is discussed in South America or the Caribbean (although I do remember reading an early 19th century Caribbean slave narrative back in school).

  23. One example of a white guy celebrity using that word and getting away with it (if not initially) was Lennon when he recorded “Woman is the NINJA of the World.” For obvious reasons radio refused to play it and thus easily tanked as a single. I believe Dick Cavett was the only guy on TV who let him play it.

    (It also tanked because even though I’m a Beatles fan, that song sucks. One key piano, musicality sacrificed in the name of a political message.)

  24. RBatty024 – I think it’s also because unlike UK (unless I’m ignorantly wrong about the demographics), black people are a huge minority group in America, was the 2nd biggest ethnic group in the country before Hispanics passed them. And that is a legacy of the South importing slavery by the truckloads to work all those plantations, especially the ones that yielded hundreds of acres of cotton. Then those lands used up, slavery expanded as farms were moved westward. The freed blacks (and their subsequent descendents) obviously stayed in America.

    Again I don’t know UK demographics..

  25. I don’t know if anybody means to be criticizing me for not writing the correct title, but I think I did the right thing. I made it more than clear what the original title is, but personally I don’t want to use that word. And as much of a hermit as I am I do have SOME friends and family and I don’t want somebody who sees my review links on Facebook or whatever to see me writing something deeply hurtful to them. It’s not worth it to me.

  26. Don’t worry about that. I do believe that it’s okay to use that word in an appropriate context (like discussions about it or just writing the title of a movie that uses it), but unfortunately the official rule is still “Don’t use it!!”

  27. No one is calling you a pussy, Vern.

    Pussy used to mean “cat” – imagine that!

  28. I’m okay with it too, though I do worry what tile you’ll use for your review of NINJA 2.

  29. Yeah, I hope it didn’t seem like I was criticizing you, Vern. You gotta do what feels right to you. I just think it’s an interesting ethical issue to discuss.

  30. The Original... Paul

    December 21st, 2012 at 3:41 am

    Let’s not play down the UK’s role in slavery here. We were still “blackbirding” – bringing slave ships across from Africa – well into the early 20th century – if you read novels from the 20s and 30s (which I do), you’ll find lots of references to it, although it at least gets a largely negative portrayal in the mainstream by then. One more little ugliness from our history that doesn’t get mentioned that much nowadays.

  31. Not a big deal, but Jim in Huck Finn is never called “Nigger Jim” in the text of the novel. That appellation came later, and is in fact a reflection of some of the racist attitudes toward the character.

    The word itself is used a ton in the novel, and there was the recent controversy of the edition that came out, edited by a scholar at Mississippi, that replaced the word with “slave.” So the point of those comments in this thread is still valid. But I think it’s relevant to note that he was only called “Nigger Jim” by others, not Twain or his novel. Seems like that’s in the context of these ideas too, y’know?

  32. Seeing this in the wake of Django Unchained, it really feels like Tarantino was quoting this movie in specific, but in doing so, also fixing a lot of the issues the movie had. Giving the hero more character development, plus getting rid of the awkward ‘married woman’ romantic subplot at the end to instead focus on Django going back and rescuing his lady from the first reel. Then adding in a lot of Franco Nero just for the hell of it. It makes me appreciate QT’s writing process: find good material in underrated pulp, then see what you can do to elevate it.

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