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Django’s Roots: Blaxploitation Star Fred Williamson on Originating the Badass Slave

Quentin Tarantino has a habit of name-dropping obscure genre movies in interviews, but in lead-up to the release of Django Unchained, he was particularly insistent on singling out one half-forgotten film — The Legend of Nigger Charley, a 1972 blaxploitation slave epic. “There’s only been one movie that kind of dealt with the subject I’m dealing with…and that was a blaxploitation film starring Fred Williamson called The Legend of Nigger Charley,” Tarantino told Charlie Rose. “All these movies that kind of trip all over themselves with historical facts…at the end of the day, they’re just kind of a downer. The Legend of Nigger Charley is more empowering for the average black audience because it’s more of a Spartacus story, the slave who fights back and actually gets his.” Last week, with Frank Rich writing a cover story on the “Obama Oscars” and the cultural importance of Django, we decided to call up Fred “The Hammer” Williamson, now 74 and happily residing in Palm Springs, to find out his take on his famous slave role, Tarantino's new film, and whether Spike Lee’s anti-Django Twitter rant had a point.

You played the title role in The Legend of Nigger Charley in 1972. Quentin Tarantino has said that that movie was the only slavery film before Django Unchained that told a story of black-male empowerment. What did that character represent to you?
First of all, a black man kicking the slave master’s ass, which is the first thing I would do if I was a slave. I’d beat the shit out of somebody who was pushing me around. Then running away and going West — it’s a symbol of the fact that anybody is capable of being a gunfighter. It doesn’t matter what color you are. If you win the fight, you’re a winner. It’s a symbol of respect, it’s a symbol of strength. I was a hero black audiences could look up to.

What did you think of the roles offered to black actors before you started your movie career?
No possible way could I have played any characters that were black prior to me coming into the movie industry. We had Mantan Moreland. When he got frightened, his eyes got big and he outran the horses. Sidney Poitier was a great black actor, but I can’t see him being a great fighter. He didn’t have the physical presence that I bring to a role.

What about Woody Strode? He was in Westerns and was a former pro-football star like you.
Woody Strode was in the background. Woody Strode never carried the show. There was always someone else who was the hero. I wanted to be the hero. I wanted to be the man. I was coming out of football as “the Hammer,” with the reputation that I would kick people’s ass if they stood in my way. I was not going to change my image coming into Hollywood.

Were you thinking at all about what that role would mean in the context of the larger civil-rights struggle?
Most definitely. I was thinking about respect. There was always shooting and a fight in my movies, and when the smoke cleared, it was always me standing and the bad guys dead. John Wayne didn’t go down. Clint Eastwood never went down. Charles Bronson never went down. And here comes the Hammer. My audience would know that I wasn’t going down either. When I came into the business, I gave a press conference and said, “I’m coming into the industry. I got three rules: One, you can’t kill me. Two, I have to win all my fights in a movie. And three, I get the girl at the end of the movie if I want her. You satisfy two out of those three, then I’m in your movie. Otherwise, I’m not interested.” It wasn’t about money; it was about respect.

What kind of feedback did you get on The Legend of Nigger Charley and your other early movies? Were both your black friends and white friends fans of them?
Blacks: 100 percent. Whites: 70 percent. Some of my white friends never really got the fact that I was an equal-opportunity ass-kicker. I killed black people, white people, yellow people. I’d kill everybody, as long as it was me still standing. My movies weren’t “get whitey” movies. I remember on 42nd street, the lunch audiences were all white for my movies — Black Caesar, Hell Up in Harlem, Bucktown, The Legend of Nigger Charley. They’d go to the theater before the black crowd came to see what this new character, this new image, was all about.

Part of the demise of those films in the seventies was that all the movies were basically about “get whitey.” They were about retribution; my films were never about retribution. I grew up watching George Raft and Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney and all of these guys and saying, “Why can’t I go do that?” Why can’t I emulate what Edward G. Robinson did in Little Caesar, you know? You kill everybody, but you help the little old lady across the street. Why couldn’t I be Black Caesar?

Have you seen Django?
No, I haven’t seen it. I’m not sure I will.

Why is that?
I don’t want to see me in the film. I know my friend Jamie Foxx gave a good performance. But I’m still alive. I’m still capable. I’m still able. I still look the way I looked in the seventies. There are no new wrinkles. I can still jump out of cars and jump out of planes and do all the things I did. I still want to be in a position where they say, “Bring me the Hammer! Don’t bring me somebody that looks like the Hammer, acts like the Hammer, talks like the Hammer; bring me the Hammer!”

Are you in touch with Tarantino at all?
I appreciate the acknowledgement by Quentin of The Legend of Nigger Charley. I did a good performance with Quentin in From Dusk Till Dawn. But you don’t go knocking on the door of a guy like that and say, “Hey, put me in your movie.” If he wants you in the movie, then he’ll call you. I haven’t been called, so I’m not needed. But I’m emulated. I’m not needed, but I’m emulated.

What did you think of Spike Lee’s comment that seeing Django would be disrespectful to his ancestors?
That’s ridiculous. That’s flat-out ridiculous. Movies don’t emulate life. Why doesn’t Spike make a slavery movie? I’m available, Spike! We can make Nigger Charley 2, or Nigger Charley 3 and 4.

I thought there already was a Nigger Charley 2?
Yeah, there was a 2. That was The Soul of Nigger Charley. So this could be 3. Let’s make another Nigger Charley. That would not be as controversial as when I made it. The word nigger is not as big a deal today. I mean, that was a dirty word back in the sixties and seventies. We were still going through the transition, man. They were still siccing dogs on black people, hosing down black people on the corner. So what I did was controversial, and some people came to see what it was really like. We live in America. Controversy sells.

*This article originally appeared in the February 11, 2013 issue of New York Magazine.

Illustration: Tony Millionaire/New York Magazine