Commending Coffy

Pam Grier: The sexiest woman in the movie universe

By T.T. Stern-Enzi

Photo: Pam Grier as Jackie Brown in “Jackie Brown,” 1997

Olive Films is releasing three classics of the Blaxploitation era—“Coffy” (1973), “Foxy Brown” (1974) and “Friday Foster” (1975)—featuring the undeniably tough and beautiful Pam Grier. As a child in the early 1970s, my memories of the period include a desire to go to the movies as much as possible, generally to see movies I didn’t realize at the time weren’t appropriate for me. I was just a kid enamored with the pictures on movie posters and the soundtrack album covers of movies like “Cleopatra Jones” and “Foxy Brown” with women rocking big Afros taking care of business. And, without a doubt, Grier was the most fatal of all the femmes at that time, exuding sexual heat that could incinerate the reels.

Yet, somehow, Grier’s brand of naked allure didn’t cross over beyond the Blaxploitation flicks, possibly due to the fact that she incorporated too much sex, during a period when the ratings board decided to crack down on sexual content over violence. And speaking of violence, Grier’s tough heroines were certainly too much for audiences willing to indulge in revenge fantasies from an exclusively male perspective. No one wanted to travel the mean streets with wild and crazy taxi drivers who happened to be bold and busty black women like Grier.

So she wandered the wastelands of television and B-movies, settling for supporting roles that relegated her to the sidelines and attempted to conceal her inextinguishable fire. That is until Quentin Tarantino tapped Grier for “Jackie Brown” back in 1997, as part of his ongoing homage reclamation of performers lost in their B-movie glory days. Grier and Robert Forster, her “Jackie Brown” co-star, were perfect subjects for re-introduction, and each of them made the most of the opportunity.

Grier, in particular, was fascinating to watch because it felt as if Elmore Leonard (whose “Rum Punch” served as the source material for the adaptation) and Tarantino had binge-watched the Olive titles, in their respective creative spaces and penned loving odes to Grier. Jackie Brown is the world-weary evolution of these earlier characters; the survivor who has made peace with her impetuous and violent past, but who also knows that she’s one bad move away, like Michael Corleone from the “Godfather” films, to being pulled back in. Unlike a typical male protagonist though, she’s willing and able to use her wits and ample wiles more to resolve situations. Time and experience have been good teachers, and Brown (Grier) an apt pupil.

Having spent time with Grier’s earlier incarnation thanks to these re-releases, what comes to mind is the final album from the late great Bobby Womack, The Bravest Man in the Universe produced by Richard Russell and Damon Albarn. The title track marries what we had come to expect the soul singer—that gravely gospel-inflected croon and his bluesy guitar playing—with hauntingly atmospheric studio effects and a simple but incessant beat. There was wisdom in this choice, an understanding that you shouldn’t just drop Womack in the modern framework, stranding him. Instead, let him tame the contemporary setting, exert his own brand of control over the proceedings, and he slays it.

Grier, that old Amazonian warrior from back in the day was fearless, every bit as dangerous as any male action star that followed her, but it is the Grier we see later on who is truly as brave as Womack. She is the bravest woman in her universe (let’s be real, THE universe), but not because, as Womack sings, (she) has forgiven first, at least not the enemies standing before her. No, Grier is brave because she has forgiven all of those versions of herself that Olive gives us. There was something outrageous and unreal about that Foxy Lady, the killer with the killer body.

But what she did was forgive her own past excesses and in doing so becomes far more human than any of us foolish fans who will ever sit down to watch these movies. They were part of an era without shame that celebrated the blurring of moral lines, all in the name of titillation. In Grier’s performances though, we see women (and an actress) struggling to survive, to keep her head above water, to maintain her dignity through it all. Watching her later on, Grier shows us that she made it (sadly, without the material success of the big boys that followed) after all. If only the old boys could learn a thing or two from her.

DVD/Blu-Ray editions of Coffy, Foxy Brown and Friday Foster arrived on June 9, 2015 via Olive Films.

 

Reach DCP film critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com and visit his blog for additional film reviews at terrencetodd.wordpress.com.

 

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Reach DCP Film Critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com and visit his blog for additional film reviews at TerrenceTodd.com. You can also follow him on Twitter at @ttsternenzi.

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