The DVD Afro Promo is a collection of trailers, put together by Jenni Olson and Karl Knapper. It is a wonderful and interesting document of late 20th century USA filmmaking. The trailers are of so-called "Black Cinema". Meaning a cinema that is made by Blacks or made by whites but has a predominate Black cast and/or just a dominate Black actor (Sidney Poitier).
The DVD jacket has a wonderful essay by Yale professor Terri Francis about what is Black cinema. What I want to chat about is the making of certain trailers. Better yet a trailer that I believe will be consumed by Black America. The trailers for Boss Nigger and Cleopatra Jones are quite interesting because of the decision-making-process that is involved. Both show action/sex/humor but what is funny is how horribly cool they are.
For an artist such as myself I become interested in how and why things are made. Cleopatra Jones (1973 written by Max Julien and directed by Jack Starrett) is a film about a United States Special Agent, Tamara Dobson, assigned to crack down on a heroin dealer, Shelly Winters. The trailer has the sound drop out twice. It is clearly a mistake but there is something cool about the imperfections of any art medium especially film. What I like about it is that no one thought enough about it to have it fixed. I could not imagine any mainstream white film's trailer with the sound dropping out.
I consider myself somewhat of an expert in Blaxplotation cinema but somehow Boss Nigger (1974 directed by Jack Arnold) aka Boss aka The Black Bounty Killer aka Big Black Bold Boss escaped me. The trailer is a social critique as well as entertaining. First of all the song (written by Leon Moore) is infectious ("they call him Boss, Boss Nigger, he's so bad" repeat). It introduces the trailer so you the viewer is going to enjoy the ride no matter if he or she wants to or not. The song also is played in during action sequences.
After being insulted by the song, the song begins to rescue the viewer. Because every time you hear the song "Boss Nigger," Fred Williamson, aka The Hammer - a former defense back for the Kansas City Chiefs - and his partner, will save the day by "installing Black Man's law into a white man's town" (whatever that means?). Opps, I am getting ahead of myself. Boss Nigger is western about two Black men, Fred Williamson (who also written the film under the alias of Jack Williamson) and D' Urville Martin, riding into a town and somehow becoming sheriff and deputy (I think? I actually never saw the film). In the trailer, they engage in shoot-outs, blow shit up, Boss kisses white women to "satisfy their curiosity", lock up the bank president (a Marxist critique) and arrest whites for using the word "nigger" in public ("two days in jail or a hundred dollars fine", hell I wonder what the penalty for saying "nigger" in private). The four minute trailer has it all; economics, first amendment, sexuality, race, violence, politics and on and on. There is a funny scene where D' Urville Martin mentions that he was a slave "six years ago" then the next scene begins with an explosion. The trailer is one of these things that I put in the category; how can something be so wrong but yet so right.
The Afro Promo DVD allows us to really take another and yet closer look at "why things are made".
Kevin Jerome Everson
Associate Professor of Art, University of Virginia