Before Django, the titular character of Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, strapped on his spurs and cowboy hat, there was Boss. A no-nonsense former slave turned bounty hunter who carried the swagger of Shaft and the grit of Eastwood’s The Man with No Name. Unlike Tarantino’s stylized homage to the blaxploitation and western genres, Jack Arnold’s 1975 cult favourite, Boss, cares little for how its hero came to be. Instead the film presents a rugged and righteous black hero who is fully aware of his gunslinging abilities.
Using the works of Sergio Leone as its template, Boss tells the tale of two black bounty hunters, Boss (Fred Williamson) and his sidekick Amos (D’Urville Martin), who decide to fill the vacant sheriff’s position in a predominantly white town. A decision that does not sit well with either the town’s mayor (R.G. Armstrong), or the ruthless bandit, Jed Clayton (William Smith), who has been routinely pillaging both the town’s supplies and women.
One of the most endearing qualities of Boss is how well it merges western tropes with the racially charged elements of the blaxploitation genre. While an entertaining romp first and foremost, Arnold’s film still manages to get its message across – Boss is as much about a town being oppressed by fear as it is a commentary on the racial and social divides that exist within America – without feeling forced or beating the audience over the head. What makes Boss such a treat to watch, especially in comparison to other blaxploitation films, is how self-aware Boss and Amos are about their place in the world. They are men who demand respect at every turn, rebuking the notion of blacks merely being good for shoe shining and providing musical entertainment. However, they are also wise enough to know that certain actions, such as fraternizing with white women, provide unnecessary added risk to their well-being.
The script, written by Fred Williamson, gets surprisingly good comedic mileage out of the notion of black lawmakers in a white town. Even recurring gags such as Amos arresting citizens who use racial slurs never loses steam. Despite being bounty hunters, they actually come across more humane and cultured than the majority of the individual in the town. Of course, as with most blaxploitation films, there are a few moments in Boss, such as when the hero laments about the possibility of dying in a white town, that come off a little silly with modern eyes. Regardless, Boss is a bundle of fun to watch. It serves as another example for why Fred Williamson was one of the key trailblazers in black cinema.
Friday, February 13, 6:30 PM, Jackman Hall, AGO. Fred Williamson will be on hand to receive the Pioneer Award and will hold a Q&A after the screening.