COFFY C+ USA (91 mi) 1973 d: Jack Hill
The baddest One-Chick Hit-Squad that ever hit town! —poster ad
Pam Grier was born in Winston-Salem, North Carolina to a military father who worked in the Air Force and a stay-at-home mother who was also a nurse, with Grier’s earliest memories growing up in Denver in a crime-infested neighborhood where gunshots were common, recalling her mother stitching up wounded victims in their kitchen, as the police would have been all over the emergency rooms making arrests, so she lived in a kind of safe house, yet she was raped at the age of six, date raped at 19, and later on fended off another attempted rape, placing second in the Miss Colorado Universe pageant in 1967, the only black contestant, catching the eye of Hollywood talent scouts. Moving to Los Angeles she attended film school at UCLA where she seriously dated Lew Alcindor (aka Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), who had gone from being a UCLA star to making his NBA debut with the Milwaukee Bucks, converting to Islam during the relationship, wanting her to convert, too, as it was the only way he could marry her. She spent time reading the Koran at his request and was disturbed by what she perceived as a subservient role for women, choosing her own career instead, having tragic and heartbreaking love affairs with Richard Pryor and Freddie Prinze. One of her college jobs was working as a receptionist at the film company American International Pictures (AIP), where she happened to catch the eye of B-movie director Jack Hill, a low-budget sleaze specialist who was one of the directors working for Roger Corman. They were casting for an upcoming women in prison exploitation film, THE BIG DOLL HOUSE (1971) to be shot in the Philippines, a film that glorifies catfights, food fights, lesbianism, nudity, and torture, where she immediately stood out, eventually working in four “babes behind bars” flicks. While women in prison movies were not new in the early 1970’s, featuring a black actress was a novel concept. Hill decided to give her the leading role in a black woman’s revenge picture, a Blaxploitation flick entitled COFFY (1973), and Grier as the entitled character became an instant movie icon as a vigilante seeking revenge on drug dealers who got her sister addicted, one of the first female black action figures, along with Tamara Dobson in CLEOPATRA JONES (1973), with Hill’s film rushed to premier in theaters a month sooner, followed less than a year later with Grier starring in Jack Hill’s Foxy Brown (1974). Grier’s provocative sexuality and alluring beauty created an on-screen dynamism, where her fierce individuality gave her star appeal. In fact, it’s hard to imagine anyone doing more with so little to work with, yet Grier’s onscreen persona has electrified audiences for decades, making her among the most likeable actresses playing the drive-in or grindhouse circuit, where she simply rises above and elevates what is really trashy material. Violent women were common in the B-movie action genre in the 1960’s, like Tura Satana in Russ Meyer’s FASTER, PUSSYCAT! KILL! KILL! (1965), where working-class women exacted revenge with bats and knives, but the Blaxploitation era of the 70’s was the first to feature violent black women, where the female protagonists were hypersexualized, mostly driven by white heterosexual male fantasies, with Coffy typically using her sexuality to lure powerful druglords into private bedrooms where she kills them with a vengeance. The Blaxploitation period, which was over by the end of the decade, is the only era in which black women dominated the genre, although they were routinely stereotyped and objectified, with 95% of the money from production and distribution funneled into white hands, financed almost exclusively by white production companies. Although they featured black actors and targeted black audiences, blacks not only failed to receive money but also had little to do with writing and production. Even though it was whites making the money off of the genre, the films were offering a token version of black power to black audiences. There is no sign of community solidarity or black activism, only a wretched display of an existing power structure selling out to the highest bidder, where residents are viewed strictly as pawns in a larger game. And therein lies the problem, as this is a film with ugly ramifications, where a corrosive vein of sadism, misogyny, and racism remains inherent in the storyline and language, a model copied almost verbatim by Quentin Tarantino decades later, citing this picture as the subversive archetype, where the sadistic use of the n-word continues to be prevalent in nearly all his pictures, the most egregious example being Django Unchained (2012) where slavery is actually used as entertainment. Tarantino does deserve credit however for bringing back Pam Grier to star in what is arguably her greatest performance in Jackie Brown (1997).
With a dated wall-to-wall funk-inflected score by jazz great Roy Ayers, dubbed the Godfather of Neo Soul, the film opens with a graphic burst of violence, with Coffy depicting a sex-craved drug addict who will do anything for a fix, targeting some drug pushers who can’t help taking advantage, then once they’re set up, she pulls out a sawed-off shotgun and blows them away, damning them to Hell just before she pulls the trigger. In real life, Coffy is a nurse at the hospital, running into a friendly black police officer, Carter (William Elliot), a childhood friend who is distinguished by NOT being on the take, as bribes to well-connected police officials allow drug pushers to operate with impunity. In no time, Carter is the target of a hit, brutally beaten into a coma, but survives. This enrages Coffy, already incensed, seeking revenge against the people responsible for her younger sister Lubelle’s heroin addiction. Coffy’s boyfriend is Howard Brunswick (Booker Bradshaw), a smooth operator, a city councilman who announces his plans to run for Congress, admired by Coffy for his contributions to the black community. Coffy next targets a pimp named King George (Robert Doqui), whose colorful flamboyant outfits are over-the-top ludicrous, one of the largest suppliers of prostitutes and illegal drugs in the city, aligned with Mafia boss Arturo Vitroni (Allan Arbus) whose diminutive size ridiculously resembles a pipsqueak or twerp. Coffy entices George with her sexual allure, pretending to be a high-class Jamaican call girl (with a bad accent), but her appearance leads to jealousy in the ranks, particularly with Meg (Linda Haynes), a white girl who feels threatened, but when Coffy gets into a girl brawl at the salad bar with the other prostitutes, showing plenty of naked breasts, basically kicking their butts, with razor blades hidden in her Afro (supposedly Grier’s idea), Vitroni declares she’s a wild animal and he must have her. But just when she’s about to shoot, his men overtake her, blaming it all on King George to save her skin, leaving her imprisoned in some rural outpost, under the control of Omar (Sid Haig). When a secret meeting shows Brunswick in cahoots with Vitroni, an imprisoned Coffy is revealed, with Brunswick ordering her execution, sealing her fate, with Vitroni’s men taking care of both George and Coffy, as they’re about to dump her body in a viaduct underneath the freeway, but she plays a sexual temptress, biding her some time, allowing her an opportunity to attack and escape. There’s a horrific scene where King George is tied to a car bumper and dragged to his death, which is still shocking today (even though it’s clearly a dummy being dragged), as it recalls the gruesome details of real-life crimes like the murder of James Byrd, Jr. who was dragged in 1998 by white supremacists in Jasper, Texas for three miles behind a pickup truck along an asphalt road, severing his body into parts, then dumping what’s left of his torso in front of a black church. Since the 1930’s, the Harlem Renaissance spawned several black artists such as Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, and James Baldwin, writing essays critiquing the restrictions on black cultural production, such as racist publishing, film, and distribution industries, while actively engaged in a growing debate, with long historical roots, over the ways in which black people were represented in white media. Film is but one of the industries in which black people sought greater employment and demanded positive depictions, yet the industry as a whole has continued to marginalize people of color. In an effort to reach a mass audience, blacks, women, and the LGBTQ community have had to choose between working exclusively through a white dominated male industry playing roles that confirmed or perpetuated common stereotypes or not working at all. The same stereotypical crudeness defines this picture, full of graphic violence and nudity, indicting a white establishment for funneling the drug trade through the black community as a way of keeping blacks down, with a white police force fully complicit in getting their cut, forcing Coffy to take the law into her own hands, fiercely playing an avenging angel hellbent on getting back at those responsible.
While COFFY has historically been viewed as a superior film to Foxy Brown (1974), including a shot filmed through a fish tank by Paul Lohmann who also shot Altman’s California Split (1974) and Nashville (1975), it may also be the more crudely offensive, a cheaply made revenge saga driven by sexual exploitation, relying almost entirely upon base stereotypes that seem conjured up by a leering white racism projecting their own venom onto the screen. Despite being written in an era following the Civil Rights and Black Power movement in America, where there were building coalitions of black solidarity and political strength, where getting the message out was an essential component, this film was released just a few years prior to the nationally recognized declaration of a Black History Month in America and another ten years before Martin Luther King Day was declared a national holiday, so the picture’s biggest weakness is the extensive white tradition of visual caricaturizing, which relied upon degraded depictions of women and blacks, using what was at the time fairly typical stereotyping about the very notion of blackness. In other words, despite targeting black audiences, there is a complete disconnect between how blacks view their own community and the version projected by white male writers and directors. At the time, for groups such as the Black Panthers, CORE, and the Black Muslims, liberation was a goal that was maintained even as these groups actively marginalized black women, a practice that undermined the movement’s strength at the time when women were needed most. Black power was often viewed as something that was violent and male-dominated, but really it’s more of a form of race consciousness, with education holding the key to knowledge and power, learning about one’s collective history in the world as well as one’s nation, becoming an ideology and even a way of life where one continually negotiates the terms recognizable in film, poetry, protest, literature, and music, meaning many different things to different people. Blaxploitation film, on the other hand, shows little respect for history, sisterhood, or accumulated knowledge. Like hip hop and rap music, a black artform where white audiences are actually the biggest economic consumers, the same may be said here, as whites, like Tarantino, fondly look back at this era with nostalgia, as if it was the good old days, yet much of the anger over Blaxploitation films came from the black middle class, Jesse Jackson and the NAACP, and even from other black actors, with Dr. Alvin F. Poussaint, a black psychiatrist, insisting it was “having an insidious effect on young lives,” setting a dangerous precedent for young black male audience members cheering every time a white person was beaten or killed in these films, suggesting the stereotypical submissiveness of Stephen Fetchit was being replaced by a cartoonish aggressiveness that could backfire on black males in their own confrontations with police. Blacks today may cringe at the cynical depiction onscreen, as blacks, along with whites, whether police, politicians, community organizers or dope dealers, are all thrown together into a corrosive mix of rampant corruption, where Coffy is a one woman wrecking crew, undermined and double-crossed by nearly everyone she knows, leaving her completely alone and isolated, not much different than the pervasive view of Charles Bronson in DEATH WISH (1974), another iconic vigilante character, both films offering fantasy versions of a wish-fulfillment style of justice, completing the mission courts for whatever reason cannot. Blacks today are smart enough to realize how politicians scapegoat crime, blaming certain targeted groups as the problem, pitting one group against another. But these same politicians aren’t the ones living in the black neighborhoods, where residents live side-by-side with the gang bangers, dope dealers, and high school drop-outs with nothing to do, but also teachers, church goers, community activists, and heathcare workers, where the black experience is a collective experience that blends the good with the bad, and is not as simplistic as a one-sided caricature of rampant corruption. In that vein, this film offers a near comic book mentality of blackness, using a lurid style of graphic realism to punctuate its white male notion of liberation.