Black Westerns: Joshua (1976)

I am a fan of Fred Williamson. I liked him in Robert Altman's 1970 film "M*A*S*H," his debut movie, where he played the unfortunately named Capt. Oliver Harmon "Spearchucker" Jones. It was a perfect debut for him, as he played a soldier transferred into a mobile surgical hospital specifically to be a ringer for a football game.

Williamson had played football college and was a free agent for the Pittsburgh Steelers, where his aggressive playing led to his lifelong nickname, a better one than the one in "M*A*S*H" — The Hammer.

I also like that after "M*A*S*H," Williamson just kept working, often on projects he originated. He was a good match for brutal, socially aware Blaxploitation films, and did quite a few with another footballer-turned-actor Jim Brown. But Williamson had a taste for Westerns, and started making them almost immediately.

He made an Italian Western called "Take a Hard Ride" and then turned his hand to writing and directing Westerns, including "Boss Nigger" and "Adios Amigo," but we're going to start with his 1976 film "Joshua," simply because its the first of his Westerns I have watched. I will return to the others later.

The film, scripted by Williamson, is about as lean as a Western can be: A Civil War soldier, the titular Joshua (played by Williamson) returns to his home in the West to discover outlaws have murdered his mother. He goes after them and kills them all. The end.

But a spare plot can be an asset when making a film, and Williamson (who also directed) takes care to make every killing a distinct set piece, and give each character. He flings a rattlesnake at one dude and kills another by rigging a rifle to go off on its own. There's a cleverness to these scenes, a real personality, that reveals more care than 1970s exploitation films generally bothered with.

And, make no mistake, this is an exploitation film — although I should note that I don't use that term critically. I like exploitation films. But the film is primarily about the spectacle of violence, and, to a lesser extent, about the spectacle of sexual violence, as the film's gang of bad men kidnap a man's wife and use her as a sex slave throughout the film. To Williamson's credit, this is not generally shown, but rather discussed, demonstrating a restraint that 70s exploitation films rarely showed around this topic.

The film is also about the spectacle that is Williamson, and, make no mistake, Williamson knew he was spectacular, and knew how to use it. He rides into the film dressed in black, in a black cowboy hat ringed with silver conchos, wearing a throwing dagger strapped to his shoulder. This is probably not what someone recently mustered out of the Union Army would dress like, but he looks fantastic.

His Joshua is glowering and laconic, but capable of fast, deadly action. In one scene, forced into a gunfight, he quick draws his pistol and fires it from behind his back, which is hard to imagine but genuinely awesome to see.

He's so single-minded about his mission of revenge that he can't even be bothered to help the few women he meets along the way, one played by the fascinating Isela Vega, another played by the equally fascinating Brenda Venus, both of whom should be better-known.

Vega was in Sam Peckinpah's "Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia" and also wrote music for the soundtrack, while Venus was a friend of Henry Miller's and wrote books on seduction and a longrunning column for Playboy, as well as having acted in some of the most memorable grindhouse films of the 70s. They aren't given a lot to do in the film, although Vega gets to play an impressively tough character, but the fact that they are in the movie shows impressive good taste on Williamson's part.

The film's villains, in the meanwhile, are noxious and brutal, played mostly by longtime character actors. Williamson isn't especially interested in them as characters, but instead as targets. Usually screenwriters are advised to make their villains an interesting as their heroes, but I am not sure I agree with this. These men are rapists and murderers, and I don't need any profound insights into their characters or their motivations to agree with Williamson that they need killing.

The film touches on the subject of race, but just barely — the villains frequently identify Williamson as Black, but don't really comment more than that. They initially seem to use it mostly as an identifier, they way you might say someone has a big nose or wears a purple shirt.

Vincent Canby noted this in a review of an earlier film, "Boss Nigger," which, with its name, you would assume would be intensely interested in race. But Canby wrote that "Most black Westerns either ignore race or make it the fundamental point of the movie. 'Boss Nigger' somehow manages to do both quite successfully."

"Joshua" is the same. Part of the spectacle of Williamson is his Blackness — one suspects its part of the reason he liked Westerns as much as he did, because a Black man in a gunslinger outfit was then an unusual enough image to become immediately iconic.

Williamson seemed to know that there wasn't much more he needed to do and the movie would nonetheless comment on race. The casual way the villains kill his mother, and the equally casual unconcern the law has for seeking the killers (the literally give up the moment the trail becomes a little difficult) seem like comment on the value White people have for Black lives. Similarly, the fact that the villains keep identifying Williamson as Black starts to feel significant, as though they simply can't believe that they are being hunted by somebody they had so little regard for.

They get more and more frightened of him as the film progresses, and, without making it the explicit message of the film, this nonetheless feels like a message of empowerment.

The people you disregard, the people whose lives seem incidental and worthless? One day they might show up, dressed in black, fast with a knife and faster with a gun, and take a reckoning of what you've done.


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