|Peter Brown and Pam Grier|
FOXY BROWN B- USA (94 mi) 1974 d: Jack Hill
To me, what really stood out in the genre was women of color acting like heroes rather than depicting nannies or maids. We were redefining heroes as schoolteachers, nurses, mothers, and street-smart women who were proud of who they were. They were far more aggressive and progressive than the Hollywood stereotypes . . . My movies featured women claiming the right to fight back, which previously had been out of the question. My roles were written as vanguard personalities who were the first to defend themselves against violence and prejudice.
—Pam Grier from her personal memoirs, Foxy: My Life in Three Acts, 2010
Blaxploitation films of the 60’s and 70’s were synonymous with the transforming image of black identity, visibly altering representations of blackness, subverting previous stereotypical Hollywood images, in particular the meek and submissive roles that were offered to blacks at the time, where one of the underlying benefits of the genre was actually employing blacks on a large scale for the first time, probably in greater numbers than any other time in history, either before or since, but the period was short-lived. These films, however, revealed a new image of black individuality and power, supported by black urban musical soundtracks and heavily exaggerated fashion statements, these low-budget films targeted a young black male audience, yet the producers and investors profiting from these films were almost exclusively white. In true Hollywood tradition, Blaxploitation films replaced old stereotypes of submissive blacks like nannies or maids with new stereotypes of hyper-sexualized action figures, who were violent, anti-social blacks living in a fictionalized ghetto world characterized by vice and lawlessness. Coinciding with the rising Black Power movement, these films could only emulate what was transpiring culturally, where the protagonist typically featured a socially and politically conscious black hero who was usually male, almost always working independently, often rotating numerous sexual partners simultaneously, specifically attacking individuals rather than larger institutions or systems as the source of his oppression. While Black Power and the Hollywood Blaxploitation era overlapped, the former was concerned with self-determination within the black community, offering a sense of solidarity that valued and supported black cultural products, often verging on an economic agenda of black nationalism, with liberation of their people as a stated goal, Hollywood almost exclusively piggybacked on the surface image and not the substance, combining sex and violence, lining the pockets of whites on a much larger scale than what blacks were paid (for the 1972 film THE LEGEND OF NIGGER CHARLEY, lead actor Fred Williamson was paid $14,000 while the producer made $14 million), where the white business model was in complete contrast to black power aspirations. In essence, Blaxploitation films were a cartoonish version of Black Power, basically parroting the rhetoric for profit, where the industry’s aims were directly at odds with any rising social or political movement. At least initially, women were marginalized in these films as well, as they were in the Black Power movement, but Hollywood had no political agenda, where there are a number of examples in American history when black music, fashion, style, and art were repackaged by white artists and sold to white audiences, with Elvis Presley being the primary example, forever known as “The King,” yet it’s no secret that Sam Phillips of Sun Records wanted to bring black music to a wider audience, pioneering a style of music called rockabilly which fused country music with Rhythm and Blues, selling more records in the broader white market. Similarly, most of the Blaxploitation era films were released through large production companies owned and operated by whites, where only a handful were produced, written, or directed by blacks. SWEET SWEETBACK’S BAADDASSSSS SONG (1971), SHAFT (1971) and SUPER FLY (1972) were all directed by black directors, but they were financed by white production companies, where 95% of the money from production and distribution fell into white hands. But without Pam Grier in FOXY BROWN, there would be no Jennifer Beals in FLASHDANCE (1983) or Charlize Theron in Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), glorified crowd pleasers of female empowerment.
Pam Grier and Tamara Dobson (rivals onscreen, but best of friends) entered the Blaxploitation business as aggressive action heroines, renegade avenging angels hellbent on kicking ass, with Grier publicized as “the baddest One-Chick Hit-Squad” and “the meanest chick in town.” In the opening psychedelic credits sequence Pam Grier is made to resemble a black female James Bond, with a musical soundtrack by Motown’s Willie Hutch, “She’s brown sugar and spice but if you don’t treat her nice she’ll put you on ice!,” yet her sexualized image largely fits the male notion of liberation and empowerment, fitting into the lone avenger profile made even more famous by Clint Eastwood or Charles Bronson in their vigilante justice movies, but Grier personifies, in the eyes of men, a voluptuous black woman, wearing revealing low-cut attire, over-sized earrings, sexy jumpsuits, a large, perfectly coiffed afro, carries a diminutive revolver that she pulls out of said afro or her bra, but is also handy with a shotgun, kickboxing, and a bar stool, not to mention a badass attitude. While working alone, she’s not averse to turning to men for a helping hand, convincing a group of black liberationists (with a poster of George Jackson on the wall) to help her seek “justice,” though it sounds to them more like revenge than justice. “You just handle the justice, and I’ll handle the revenge myself.” Coming on the heels of the more critically acclaimed COFFY (1973), Grier established herself as an icon in the industry, immediately labeled the “Queen” of the genre, establishing a reputation this film only enhances and glorifies, providing her with her most iconic character, forever associated with the role which had a huge impact on popular culture, the first real female action hero, among the first black women to headline theater marquees and make the studios copious amounts of money, the first black woman to grace the cover of Ms. magazine, and a prime example of the liberated woman of the 70’s. One thing can be said for Pam Grier, she’s always brought a fierce independence and a swaggering character to her roles, thoroughly dominating every scene she’s in, proving she’s quite capable of carrying a film, offering something unique, fusing feminist sensibilities with black nationalist radicalism, while maintaining a near impossible standard of beauty, certainly prone to violence, meeting fire with fire when standing up to her male counterparts, while always remaining cool under pressure, eventually becoming one of the more universally beloved figures in the industry. While no doubt featured as a sex object, there aren’t really nude scenes, instead there are flash moments of titillation, where she goes undercover as a prostitute connected to the drug trade, hoping to get closer to the ringleaders, revealing wigs and outfits galore, yet more than anything the genre accentuates violence, judged by an elevated standard of machismo, where the enemy gets their comeuppance. While her goals are laudable, and her combat skills off the charts, these films helped raise the consciousness of black youth, suddenly idealized through images of strength and power, yet in every finale the enemy was a corrupt cadre of wealthy whites who monopolized the drug trade in black communities. The era of Blaxploitation films reminds us of 70’s style fashion, funky soundtracks, shoddy B-movie production values, and generic storytelling featuring stereotypical characters of drug pushers, prostitutes, and pimps within the black community which is infested by a flow of drugs generated by corrupt whites. These stereotypes are just as egregiously insulting as prior Hollywood versions, just changed to suit the genre. This fictionalized white enemy misses the mark, as corruption is more deeply embedded in the halls of power, where knocking off a few individuals would have little effect, yet this overly simplistic agenda remains firmly implanted in the minds of a generation of kids who grew up on this stuff, often failing to extract a core reality from fiction.
Often the theme of these films is built upon betrayal, with Foxy’s boyfriend Michael Anderson (Terry Carter) undergoing an identity transformation through plastic surgery, an undercover agent working for the Feds, who presumably died, at least for the newspapers, cutting all ties to his former identity, now starting anew. He and Foxy snuggle under the sheets at the hospital, causing the nurse providing a sponge bath a bit of commotion when she arrives unexpectedly, as he’s obviously aroused. But perhaps the hardest pill to swallow is that Link (slimeball Antonio Fargas, likely named after the black character in the popular TV show The Mod Squad) is Foxy’s brother, in trouble right from the outset, having to call upon his big sister to bail him out, with her reading him the riot act for getting into trouble for the umpteenth time, in debt to the tune of $20,000 to the mob, but of course, claiming it’s not his fault. But he does get to utter the infamous line, “That’s my sister, baby. And she’s a whole lotta woman!” Seeing no other way of getting out from under the debt, he double-crosses his sister, a dumbass thing to do, but he’s Antonio Fargas, who’s built a career out of fucking up in every movie or television episode he’s ever been in, but his ratting costs Anderson his life, gunned down on the street, where Foxy immediately fingers her brother, who’s already knee deep in a plentiful coke distribution operation, but the drug suppliers kill him when they discover his relation to Foxy, their latest nemesis. Kathryn Loder, a B-movie heavy, plays Miss Katherine, the brains behind the operation, using her man-toy plaything Steve Elias (Peter Brown) as the muscle, employing two goons to take care of dirty business, the two hoods roughed up by Foxy when protecting her brother, so they have an axe to grind. Foxy aligns herself with Claudia (Juanita Brown) in a sting operation designed to bribe a judge (there are hilarious penis references), both fleeing to safety afterwards, but Claudia screws up, found at a local watering hole, which turns out to be an all-white dyke bar, with women dressed very boyishly, made to look extremely unattractive, looking like truck drivers, in stark contrast to the overtly feminized and skin-baring black women. This distinct racial and sexual separation is part and parcel of the exploitation genre, relying upon stereotypes that place an emphasis on women’s physical appearance and behavior, breaking out into utter mayhem when Foxy tries to haul her out of there, a rip-roaring bar fight that suggests women can pack a punch, with Foxy breaking bar stools over other women’s heads, but she’s captured by Katherine’s men while trying to escape. Miss Katherine plans to get her hooked on heroin and send her to Haiti for the sex trade, dreaming about all the sadistic damage she could inflict, also thinking she can make back some of the money Foxy’s cost them. While in captivity, however, it gets a little dicey, tied to the bed, at the mercy of a couple of sleazeballs who keep upping her injections, and just when you think all hope is lost, Foxy outsmarts her kidnappers with some sly maneuvers, blowing up a drug manufacturing operation in the process. But Foxy vows revenge not only for her boyfriend and her brother, but for all the blacks who’ve been victimized, the kind of speech that would draw applause in the theater, advocating the position of a black revolutionary through female empowerment. Where it all leads is way over the top, as there are some sick minds in the exploitation business, getting down into the gutter, where ghastly and appalling behavior is normalized as “entertainment.” Jack Hill pulls out all the stops for this one, levying some of the most brutal violence in Grier’s career, playing into a revenge drama fantasia with perverse pleasure. But the Blaxploitation era was short-lived, roundly condemned by black social organizations for their addiction to violence and promotion of black stereotypes, as viewer sophistication and political appetites changed, along with a growing apathy in our nation’s direction, with Nixon and Hoover’s law and order campaign firmly entrenched into the fabric of American life, still biting us in the ass today.