Fred Williamson

I wanted to make something dynamic in Hollywood, something true to myself, not just get a part and become an actor. So I started writing my own films and raising my own money. From 1970 to about 1976, the Black actor being the winner, being the hero was happening.15 Fred Williamson

Fred Williamson brought two important things to black filmmaking in the i97os—a large, indestructible ego and entrepreneurship. With this combination Williamson stands out for his contribution to the international recognition of the black presence in commercial films. The objective for Williamson was not film as "art," but the commitment to film as the business of entertainment. His goal was not critical acclaim or awards, but to work in a business where he enjoyed both the control over his products and the profits from those products. One could obviously question whether Williamson acknowledged the political messages in entertainment films as they related to African American images, but one would have difficulty arguing that Williamson did not deal with Hollywood on his own terms.

Credited with making over fifty films—thirty of which he produced or directed—Williamson had a rather colorful odyssey to Hollywood.16 Born in Gary, Indiana, in 1938, Williamson's athleticism earned him a track scholarship to Northwestern University. But once there, football coach Ara Par-seghian recruited him onto the football team for an additional scholarship. Majoring in architecture at the university, Williamson put off his targeted profession when he was drafted to play professional football with the San Francisco 49ers in i960.17 He was christened with the nickname ''The Hammer'' because of the severe forearm blow he delivered to receivers coming at him in his defensive back position. After ten years of professional football— he also played for the Oakland Raiders, the Pittsburgh Steelers, and, in the first Super Bowl, the Kansas City Chiefs—he turned to architecture for his livelihood.18

From there, Williamson's escapades turned Hollywoodish in more ways than one. Claiming his indoor job as an architect made him restless, and after viewing episodes of the television show Julia, he closed up shop and journeyed to Hollywood to give acting a try. Bluffing his way into an interview with Hal Kanter, the producer of Julia, Williamson succeeded in winning a role on the show as Julia's steady boyfriend. In an interview, Kanter remarked of Williamson: ''If we can find a bottle big enough to put his ego in . . . we'll need a redwood tree for a cork.''19 In addition to Julia, Williamson made other television appearances, and in 1970 he appeared in his first feature film, M*A*S*H, directed by Robert Altman.

The timing was ideal for Williamson's credentials, ambition, and physical attributes, as he went on to perform in a number of films of the '70s black action genre—films such as The Legend of Nigger Charley (1972), Black Caesar (1973), That Man Bolt (1973), Hell Up in Harlem (1974), and Bucktown (1975). He continued to be a screen presence in the '80s, and he revitalized his screen image for a younger audience in the mid-'90s with the films From Dusk till Dawn (1996) and Original Gangstas (1996).

As a director, Williamson completed numerous films in the 1970s and 1980s that display his cinematic approach—action-dominated, low-budgeted, and quickly shot movies. Peppered heavily with black and white women in sexually provocative roles, Williamson fostered movies where fighting, shooting, and explosions were the plot. Without apology, Williamson identifies the films he acted in and/or directed in the following way: ''My pictures are action pictures. ... A foot in the mouth translates worldwide. A joke does not translate worldwide. A punch in the jaw doesn't need a subtitle.''20

A glimpse at just two of his films— Adiós Amigo (1976) and One Down, Two to Go (1982—displays the visual style found in most of his films. The potential for quality exists in his movies, but Williamson's priority remained the finished marketable movie that would reach an action audience, without necessarily affecting that audience on any political level.

Adiós Amigo, which was written, produced, and directed by Williamson, is an action Western that follows a rather simple plot. A black outlaw named Sam Spade (Richard Pryor) consistently runs a con game on various characters, usually leaving his tough, fast-drawing amigo named Big Ben (Williamson) to take the blame. Actually, rather than having a plot, the movie is a series of vignettes, as Sam and Big Ben go from one predicament to the next, always after money and women.

The opening title song—which has a contemporary seventies feel to it— clashes with the nineteenth-century setting of the movie. Interlaced with the visual action throughout the film, the song works as an ongoing narra-

Fred Williamson
In One Down, Two to Go, Jim Brown, Fred Williamson (second from left), Jim Kelly, and Richard Roundtree join forces to battle their common enemies.

tion that attempts to hold together the threads of the vignettes. Additional unifying techniques are the detailed illustrations and/or tinted drawings that capture some aspects of the action in a given sequence. Working like a freeze-frame, the illustrations punctuate the end of a sequence and try to serve as a transition into the next live-action scene. At those places where the story jumps abruptly and elliptically, the drawings appear to be an attempt to fill in the void, suggesting problems with the film's editing.

In his role as Sam, Pryor does his best to give vitality to his scenes, and on occasion, he succeeds. Pryor's improvisations often infuse a wooden story with a sense of fun, but Pryor plays "Pryor"—a stand-up comedian caught in a Western. A similar situation rings true for Williamson. His open-shirt, cigar-chomping, tough exterior just happens to be in the Wild West setting; without the horse, the same image is projected in his other urban action films. The other performers in the movie pass back and forth in front of the camera, attempting to enliven their ineffectual lines of dialogue.

Eight years later, Williamson's directing did not change in any discernible way. In the movie One Down, Two to Go, Williamson is once again dealing with his favorite elements—fighting, shooting, women, and explosions.

The movie would appear to be worthy of attention as it pulls together, in one cast, four of the most popular black action heroes of the '7os—Williamson, Jim Brown, Richard Roundtree, and Jim Kelly. Williamson, Brown, and Kelly had worked together before in Three the Hard Way (1974), and Williamson, Brown, and Roundtree would later revive their union in Original Gangstas. Here, however, in One Down, Two to Go, the four stars give the movie a bit of "soul," but it contains little substance.

The movie begins at a full-contact karate tournament in New York, where Chuck (Kelly), a West Coast karate master, worries over the foul play aimed at his competing team. With the support of his friend and manager, Ralph (Roundtree), Chuck discovers that the white promoters of the tournament are attempting to fix the matches to hold on to the large $400,000 purse. When Chuck is shot by the promoters' thugs, Ralph puts in a call to some reliable friends, Mr. J (Brown) and Cal (Williamson). Mr. J and Cal arrive in limos to help their buddies, as fistfights, gun battles, and car explosions erupt. By the movie's end, the four friends prevail, and the thugs are dispatched.

Williamson both produces and directs this feature, giving it his trademark facets of an elliptical, sometimes confusing, story line connected by action sequences. The characters lack motivation in numerous places, and plot points dangle. Obviously shot quickly and without a variety of takes, the editing suggests desperation, as the music misses the opportunity to be as slick and "hip" as the four main characters.

In its attempt to capture the heroic images from a previous decade, One Down, Two to Go ignores the expectations of the audience of its day. By the early 1980s, black action heroes were needed to suit the burgeoning hip-hop generation and a mainstream audience attuned to the exploits of Sylvester Stallone (First Blood, 1982), Arnold Schwarzenegger (Conan the Barbarian, 1982), and Chuck Norris (Missing in Action, 1984).

If there was anything to commend about Williamson's direction in these two films, as well as others, it would be that he did work quickly and under budget. But those commendations don't address the aesthetics and/or cultural elements one might expect from a black director. However, Fred Williamson would probably be the first to insist that his objectives were strictly business and primarily entertainment. He would assess himself, not as an artist, but a savvy entrepreneur who worked on his own terms. Most critics would agree.

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