‘The Hammer’ Heads Home: ‘VFW’ and Fred Williamson’s return to the top of genre

Fred Williamson
Still from 'Black Caesar' via MoviestillsDB

This article contains spoilers for VFW.

In the final act of Joe Begos’ latest neo-grindhouse feature VFW, just as the heroic group of retired Vietnam veterans prepares to face down a hoard of rabid, murderous punks who have cornered them in their local watering hole, Abe Hawkins — as played by exploitation film icon Fred Williamson — rips into a bag of synthetic drugs and snorts an untold amount of powder, giving the old man the chemical rush needed to go down fighting in a blaze of glory.

It’s a moment reminiscent of De Palma’s Scarface or even Brad Pitt’s acid-soaked confrontation with the Manson family in last year’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and the octogenarian Williamson plays the moment for all the laughs he can get from it. His body rocks back and forth as he struggles to retain his composure and his eyes bulge wide. His fists strike a familiar fighting pose: Right hand in the air, left hand outstretched just above waist level, his signature “Ready to Rumble” figure. The drug whiff is a fun, wacky moment in this ultra-violent siege film, but it also jumps out as strangely out of character for the actor.

On-screen, Williamson has never been one for drugs and his forays into comedy are rarely self-effacing, much more likely to drop a groan-inducing one-liner after offing a henchman than to make light of his carefully cultivated “badass” image. But more so, it’s a rare mark that he truly believes in a film when he’s willing to bend his persona for a director, because when you hire Fred “The Hammer” Williamson, you expect him to play Fred “The Hammer” Williamson. And that means you follow his three essential rules: 1. He wins all his fights. 2. You can’t kill him. 3. He gets the girl if he wants her (more on this last one in a bit). It’s these rules that have sustained him and helped hone the cigar-chomping image he’s cultivated over his 50+ year career.

Though Williamson has broadly faded into obscurity over the past couple of decades, he’s ridden his cult icon status to sustain continuous work in ultra-low-budget fare. He hasn’t appeared in a wide release since Todd Phillips’ Starsky & Hutch in 2004 and VFW, out this weekend in limited release, is perhaps the next highest profile film he’s appeared in since. But Williamson’s legacy goes beyond any single feature; a trailblazing Black actor with over 120 screen credits, he established himself an essential figure in exploitation film history by helping define the Blaxploitation era through films like Black Caesar and Bucktown. He populated post-apocalyptic wastelands in an array of ’80s Italian schlock with dozens of alternative titles, he’s fought vampires with George Clooney and Harvey Keitel in From Dusk Till Dawn, and he has 18 feature credits as a director — mostly self-produced action vehicles built on his own star power.

He’s among the last men standing from a rapidly aging generation of action heroes, a point that makes his appearance in VFW — a film about elderly veterans trapped in a titular Veterans of Foreign Wars bar that pays homage to the gritty 80s thrillers Williamson used to star in regularly — rather apt.

Born in Gary, Indiana in 1938, Williamson grew up in poverty before making a name for himself as a defensive back in the NFL, playing for the Steelers, Raiders, and Chiefs and earning the nickname “The Hammer” for the brute force with which he knocked his opponents to the ground. 

Retiring from the game in 1967, he briefly worked as an architect (NFL players back then didn’t get the same multi-million dollar contracts today’s players command) before making a transition into acting with early television guest spots on Ironside and Star Trek before landing a recurring role as Diahann Carroll’s boyfriend on the sitcom Julia. By 1970 he was winning small parts in auteurist films, including Robert Altman’s MASH, playing the unfortunately named “Spearchucker” Jones, and Otto Preminger’s Tell Me That You Love Me, Julie Moon. But it was the rise of Blaxploitation the next year, with the dual successes of Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song and Shaft, which would create the Black crime film wave that would give Williamson his permanent status as an action hero and establish the actor’s rather limiting comfort zone.

Williamson has frequently been clear about his disdain for the term “Blaxploitation” because in his mind no one was ever being exploited — at least he wasn’t being exploited. On-screen in roles like Black Caesar, Williamson was suave, even debonair, with a mean streak and an ability to take the punches and deal them back with twice the force. Off-screen he was reeling in the cash.

For Williamson, the key to longevity has been by viewing film first and foremost as a business. From the very beginning of his career, going back to his days as a football player, he broke NFL dress code and paid daily fines in order to wear white shoes to better stand out on the field. He’s intrinsically understood that a star is a brand, and part of building a brand is identifying what it stands for and preserving its integrity. As much as is made about Williamson’s three rules (minding the blatant sexism of his “get the girl” clause) he’s often careful to note that actors like Schwarzenegger, Stallone, and Eastwood effectively bring with them the same exact requirements, it’s simply that they’re white and therefore expected by audiences to win their fights, live to the end and get the girl. Too often, black actors would be assigned to disposable henchmen roles or worse, as servants and slaves and background. For the Williamson brand to succeed, he can’t be seen in the same subservient positions that so many Black actors before him were forced to take by a racist system. The aesthetics of that particular brand — cigars, the mustache, the bravado — simply extend from the core foundation he established in 1970.

“I understood that people make more money off me than me,” Williamson said in a 1996 interview. “Something is wrong with that picture. So when I came into the motion picture business I had a whole plan, I had a whole concept about marketability.”

Early in his career, both owning and subverting his Blackness was essential. Ads stating “Fred Williamson isn’t a Black actor. Fred Williamson is an actor” were taken out in the trades and he daringly selected the title for his first starring role in the 1972 western The Legend of N—-r Charley as a means of grabbing attention and playing directly into the shifting racial dynamics of American culture. In that same interview, Williamson said the film was advertised with billboards with his face, declaring “N—-r Charley is Here.” White executives at Paramount Pictures, who produced the film, would squirm when asked to talk about the projects they were working on, Williamson said, much to his delight. Even as an up-and-comer, Williamson found ways to control the power hierarchy.

In the film, Williamson does play a slave who after winning his freedom is forced to go on the run, fighting and killing a string of white men. At the time critics dismissed the film as ultimately following similar racist and sexist tropes — Charley’s freedom is awarded to him by the kindness of a dying white slavemaster, women are wantonly abused, and an opening sequence of naked African tribes has a strong leering overtone to it. But much like how Melvin Van Peebles made history by escaping the police in Sweet Sweetback the year prior, the film ends on a note of empowerment when Charley rides off into the sunset victorious. From its title to its content, Charley is messy, yet it’s emblematic of the particular brand of masculine Black empowerment Williamson would come to represent.

Though he had his biggest hit of the ’70s with Black Caesar in 1973 and its sequel Hell Up in Harlem, when studios stopped producing Blaxploitation films in the middle of the decade Williamson made the pivot to producing and directing, founding his own company Po Boy Productions, which he ran single-handedly out of his home for years following. He crafted more macho characters like Mr. Mean, Mean Johnny Barrows, and Jesse Crowder — the latter his short-lived attempt at creating a Dirty Harry-esque alter ego that he employed in several films from 1976 including Death Journey, No Way Back, and Blind Rage.

Speaking to Roger Ebert in 1983, Williamson explained his business strategy: “When the black boom collapsed, I was ready. I knew that black pictures were being thrown away in the world market. They’d sell the rights for $3,000. But black stars were big in Italy, France, Spain — even places you never think about, like Malta. So eight years ago I started selling my own pictures at the Cannes festival. You could say I’m doing all right. I deal with the same buyers every year. I get $100,000 for Italy, $125,000 for France. I pay my bills.”

In the ’80s, Williamson spent much of his time in Italy, working in a bevy of post-apocalyptic sci-fi films, all loosely ripping off The Road Warrior to varying degrees. In The New Barbarians Williamson would wear a silver headband and wield an explosive bow-and-arrow. In Warriors of the Year 2072 he would fight for his life in a battle royale stadium full of flashing strobe lights. Around this time, he also starred in a little scene war movie directed by Enzo G. Castellari called The Inglorious Bastards.

The Tarantino Effect

Asked in 2018 what film he gets asked about most, Williamson told Bulletproof Action “For white folks, it is From Dusk Till Dawn. For black folks, it is Black Caesar.”

Released in 1996, From Dusk Till Dawn stands as one of Williamson’s highest-profile performances but is also something of an outlier in his career. It’s one of only a handful of horror films he’s made while also being a rare film that breaks all of his three core rules for accepting a project. Directed by Robert Rodriguez, from a script penned by Quentin Tarantino, From Dusk Til Dawn has its origins in the early ’90s when Tarantino agreed to adapt a story by FX and makeup artist Robert Kurtzman in exchange for Kurtzman’s company K.N.B. EFX Group providing effects for the ear-slicing scene in Reservoir Dogs. The script ended up shelved for several years but was finally dusted off once Tarantino was riding high on the critical and commercial success of Pulp Fiction.

In the film, Williamson plays Frost, a little defined heavy (though like in VFW the character is revealed to be a traumatized Nam vet) who finds himself in a Mexican bar overrun with vampires. Williamson gets his screen time killing ghouls, but in a twist is bitten (by none other than Tom Savini) and briefly becomes a vampire overlord before being killed.

Fights: Lost. Character: Dead. Girls got: None.

Perhaps that was the allure of working with Tarantino at the height of the director’s enfant terrible hype, or maybe the job was merely too big to pass up. Regardless, it’s proven to be something of an anchor for Williamson ever since — a fun, successful film that will probably still stand as his tentpole for years to come and has introduced him to a new generation of younger, largely white fans — yet it’s also been an assurance that he’s always going to be associated with Tarantino the same way so many other classic character actors that the director casts for nostalgia has been.

A year after From Dusk Till Dawn, Tarantino made his Blaxploitation homage Jackie Brown, a film Williamson has ridiculed as being an inaccurate portrayal of the movies he made back in the ’70s. By the time Tarantino made his own riff on The Inglorious Basterds in 2009 he found roles in his film for Williamson’s co-star Bo Svenson and director Castellari, but Williamson’s phone never rang. Three years later, Tarantino’s Django Unchained paid homage to The Legend of N—-r Charley and the other westerns Williamson made such as the similarly titled Boss N—-r, but Williamson again got left out of the finished product.

“I don’t even know if he knows that I was even in [The Inglorious Basterds],” Williamson told The A.V. Club in 2008. “And I’m getting all these calls from around the world about Quentin doing Inglorious Basterds, but I have not gotten any acknowledgment from Quentin that he even knows that I was in the movie.”

Who Is The Hammer?

Outside of a few TV appearances on shows like Comedy Bang Bang, Williamson’s 2010s have largely seen him disappearing into the world of no-budget thrillers where he’ll receive top billing for 10 minutes or less of screen time. In Jackson Bolt, a 2018 cop movie that can be found in the depths of Amazon Prime, Williamson appears briefly — barely mic’d as the dialogue is inaudible under the overbearing sounds of the stock music soundtrack. And yet, his presence is always welcome, he exudes raw charisma without even saying a word, even when the movie shows him in a two-minute driving sequence if for nothing more than to pad out the running time. The 2015 film Atomic Eden, a confusing mishmash set at the ruins of Chernobyl but featuring Nazi villains, is a bit more polished with surprisingly vivid camerawork and well-choreographed fight scenes despite poor lighting and coloring. But it relies on Williamson to sell the film while the actor largely stands around occasionally punching his way through a styrofoam wall.

Action stars are usually expected to play versions of themselves to some degree, and each one has his own signature. Stallone is often anguished, terrorized by his past or self-loathing. Jean-Claude Van Damme in his most iconic roles is a naive, almost innocent pretty boy whose legs are lethal weapons. Steven Seagal is walking, talking, proto-MAGA ego with a bitter streak. And Clint Eastwood always has a melancholy to him, even in his most fascistic cop roles he brings a deep sense of loneliness to the proceedings.

But The Hammer is merely content. Fred Williamson brushes off emotions — he’s rarely even angry — and exudes pure confidence, pure swagger. He’s introverted and his characters rarely form close relationships, a lone wolf but never lonesome. He’s always in the middle of the action but usually because he wants to be because he likes the feeling of being an ass-kicker, and he does so while rarely breaking a sweat because he knows at the end of the day he’s going to win. He is comfortable chomping his cigar, pretending to be some kind of supercop, ok being the center of attention or in the ensemble throwing fists. Even in VFW, where his character is a poor old man, Williamson’s character doesn’t have much of an internal life. He’s happy sitting at a grungy old bar with his friends, and he relishes the opportunity to kill some punks — as if there’s finally some excitement!

As an actor, Williamson is not versatile, but he shouldn’t be. He comes into each film with a conservative, patriarchal attitude. His line delivery is wooden, his movies are boys clubs, and he’s transparently obsessed with his image to the point that he’s more brand manager than artist. Yet, that’s also his greatest strength: In the cottage industry of cult cinema and bargain bin DVD multipacks, The Hammer has persisted as a legend. But today, he feels fossilized.

Watching Williamson’s films, both those he starred in and directed, it’s impossible to ignore the blatant sexism. Women are rarely given autonomy, are frequent victims, and Williamson shows no qualms about hitting a woman if she’s the villain (or if he’s the villain). It should be evident from the phrasing of his third rule — “I get the girl, if I want her.” The women have no say, they’re set dressing for The Hammer, easily dismissed if the plot doesn’t call for it. And this isn’t a matter of “it was a different time,” it was wrong then and it’s wrong now, it’s just much harder to ignore. On top of that Williamson’s sense of masculinity is, much like his contemporaries, based purely on brawn. His idea of a role model is a guy who wins fights, who’s strong. It’s no wonder he endorsed Donald Trump in 2016, and he’s even a member of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club/resort.

But it’s also why he works in a film like VFW. Begos’ movie is itself somewhat reactionary, longing for the synth-driven ’80s horror/action of his youth, full of pastiche about American military valor contrasted with the street trash that conservative media constantly tells us is ruining our cities. It’s abhorrent, yet visceral and vivid, and what action cinema isn’t a little reactionary? The lizard brain in us all just wants to see some blood, and The Hammer knows that well. It’s how he’s built a thriving personal business: On giving people what they want again and again and again. 

As it stands he doesn’t seem intent on slowing down anytime soon. At 81, he’s currently working on seven acting roles and has announced a new directorial effort called The Last Hit Man. If VFW manages to break out, perhaps it could win Williamson a few more high profile roles before he hangs it up. But that probably doesn’t matter much to him, he’s never stopped working since he got into this game and he’s made the same type of movie year after year. Why stop now?