By Odienator (click here for all posts)
Women in Blaxploitation pictures were disposable characters who usually served two purposes: Screw the hero, and bring him information or a weapon. Youngblood Priest is seen in bed with White girls, but they get far less screen time than The White Girl (ahem, cocaine) in his movie. Shaft’s women are memorable for having a hand clenching orgasm and for telling him to “get it yourself, shitty!” Rudy Ray Moore’s “Kung Fu hos” assisted him in fights and love scenes, both of which were horribly choreographed. As in most B-movies of the era, women were there to be seen and not heard, regardless of race.
Pam Grier changed all that. Already a veteran of B-movies by 1973, she was cast in what seemed like the typical Blaxploitation female. In Coffy, she picks up two drug dealers with the promise of crack and smack. As one guy strips down to his purple boxers, and the other watches while prepping for his fix, you might be thinking that the guys are the heroes of this picture. After all, Youngblood Priest was a dope pusher and he’s the hero of Super Fly. Pam changes your opinion quickly: She calls Mr. Purple Drawers a word that rhymes with blubbermucker, pulls out a sawed off shotgun and shoots the guy point blank in the head. BLAM!! Then she turns to the other guy and demands he shoot up with a Secretariat sized portion of horse. “This will kill me!” he tells her. “Maybe it will and maybe it won't,” says Pam. “But if it do, you gonna fly through them pearly gates with the biggest fucking smile St. Peter ever seen!”
Director Jack Hill’s third collaboration with Pam Grier wastes no time in establishing its premise. Coffy has a problem with drug dealers, and she’s willing to lure them to their violent ends by any means necessary. It isn’t difficult when you’re tall, sexy, confident and have double D guns to go with your actual guns. This wasn’t the typical Blaxploitation hero. Shaft spent the first five minutes of his movie walking through Times Square. In the same amount of time, Coffy sends two bad guys to their Maker, one of them without a head. The poster was right: Coffy will cream you!
Before Coffy, Pam Grier appeared in chicks in chains movies like The Big Bird Cage, its sequel, The Big Doll House, (both by Hill) and Black Mama, White Mama. Mama, a personal genre fave of mine, pairs Grier with leggy blonde Margaret Markov in a sleazy update of The Defiant Ones. They’re handcuffed together, but it doesn’t stop them from having cat fights. Grier was tough, both as hero and villain in her earliest films, but they didn’t start writing her legend until she put on Coffy’s nurse outfit and took on the drug world.
Having a kick-ass female for a hero isn’t Coffy’s only deviation from the genre. The negative portrayal of drugs was also unusual, especially after Super Fly. Super Fly’s hero snorted so much cocaine I’m surprised he was able to stand up. It looked cool, the way Bette Davis’ cigarettes looked cool. Curtis Mayfield said that the film was “a giant commercial for cocaine,” and used his music to counter that. Mayfield’s Pusher Man is a boastful number, but the fool he’s besting in the song is the junkie he holds sway over with his product: He’s your Mama and your Daddy, that is, he owns your ass. It’s telling that Mayfield appears in the film singing this song. Later, he sings on the soundtrack “my life’s a natural high, The Man can’t put no thing on me.” Meanwhile, the people onscreen make Tony Montana look like a newbie.
Coffy has an anti-drug plot. Coffy’s 11-year old sister has gotten hold of some bad smack, and is now incapacitated. Coffy takes her cop ex-boyfriend, Carter (William Elliott), on a tour of what passes for the pediatric ward of the Betty Ford clinic. She points out that some of the patients are under 10 years old. Unbeknownst to Carter, Coffy has been roaming the streets at night, a year before Chuck Bronson would do the same, seeking revenge on the pushers who hurt her family. Unbeknownst to Coffy, Carter’s involved with some shady police dealings with the Mafia. When he backs out, they treat him like a piñata while Coffy helplessly watches. This is a bigger Mafia mistake than Godfather III; Coffy knows how to keep—and settle—a grudge.
Meanwhile, Coffy’s current boyfriend, Howard Brunswick (Booker Bradshaw), is running for Congress. He’s not right for our heroine; he’s corrupt as shit and stupid to boot. He, like most of the men in this picture, underestimates Coffy. She thinks he’s busy, but honest. His campaign race gives Coffy time to execute her plan undetected. Little does she know it’ll all end up back at Howard’s.
Coffy goes undercover (and under the covers) as a prostitute for King George (Robert DuQui), the pimp whose bad heroin her sister injected. King George (his theme music goes “George…KING GEORGE!”) dresses in colors that will burn holes in your retinas, and he has a rainbow coalition-worthy stable of women. Coffy pretends to be a Jamaican ho, complete with an accent so bad it makes Miss Cleo sound like Rita Marley, so she can find his stash. She learns of its whereabouts from a hooker named Priscilla, who makes the mistake of threatening Coffy with a knife. Coffy returns the threat with a broken bottle. Check out some of the dialogue in this scene to find out why Grier says she’s a lesbian icon.
Priscilla: Now, listen. My old man's coming back any minute, and if SHE catches you here, she's gonna wanna kick your ass!
(after the bottle gets pulled by Coffy)
Coffy: Now I'm gonna give you another slice to match the one you got from that dope-pushin' pimp, unless you tell me where he keeps the stuff!
Priscilla: No, please! He'll kill me! Ow... ALRIGHT, alright! He's got a fireplace! It's in a box under the ashes!
(Priscilla's tough-looking black lesbian lover/pimp returns suddenly)
Priscilla: Harriet! Harriet!
Harriet: What the hell is going on here?
Priscilla: She busted in here tryin' to make me! Get her outta here!
Harriet: Come on, bitch!
After Coffy escapes Harriet’s clutches, Harriet turns her anger on Priscilla:
Harriet: I go away for half an hour for you to turn a trick... and I come back and find you ballin' some nigga bitch! You WHITE TRAMP!
Back at King George’s, Coffy gets into the greatest cat fight ever committed to celluloid. Titties and broken glass fly everywhere as Coffy’s Afro gives new meaning to the word nappy: One unlucky vixen grabs Coffy’s coif, only to discover it’s loaded with razor blades. (In another film, if memory serves, Grier pulls a gun from her Afro, making her hair the ghetto equivalent of Felix the Cat’s bag.) This display of feminine ferocity gets Coffy her first client for George, a freaky Italian guy named Arturo.
Grier’s Blaxploitation output has been accused of being misogynist, an argument I understand to a point. In all her films, Grier gets abused in ways far worse than the scene I’m about to describe. However, I counter that Pam always gets her payback. James Brown once sang that a woman has to use what she got to get what she wants, and Grier’s characters understand that it may come at the expense of luring the objects of her wrath with her sexuality. In her films, she gets slapped around, abused, and in a Foxy Brown scene her Jackie Brown director would lift for Kill Bill: Volume I, repeatedly raped while unconscious. It’s manipulative, yes, and even distasteful, but this isn’t Merchant Ivory. Without exception, Pam turns the tables and exerts her empowerment on her tormentors. I understand the claim, but it was par for the course in order to see the kind of Black feminine empowerment I enjoyed so much in these pictures.
Arturo is a sick son of a bitch. He spits on the half-naked Coffy as she’s on the floor. I give the film credit for deglamorizing johns, but the racial aspect is truly cringe-worthy, at least until Pam pulls that gun.
Arturo: Crawl, nigger!
Coffy: (pulls gun): You want me to crawl, white muthafucka?
Arturo: What are you doing? Put that down.
Coffy: You want to spit on me and make me crawl? I'm gonna piss on your grave tomorrow.
Speaking of uncomfortable racial aspects, King George is certainly not a nice guy, but what happens to him at the hands of Grier’s frequent co-star, Sid Haig (Captain Spaulding to you Rob Zombie fans) is truly disturbing. Coffy has set him up, first by replacing his heroin with Domino sugar, then by telling the Mafia that King George set her up to assassinate crazy ass Arturo. The mob gets its revenge by tying King George behind Haig’s car and dragging him down the street for a long, long, long time. I feel a tad hypocritical, baying for blood whenever Coffy gets the upper hand, yet cringing when the guy who set her revenge plan in motion gets his. The scene doesn’t look completely convincing, but its premise and imagery shake me every time I watch Coffy. (Full disclosure: I watched Coffy for the 7,000th time last night, and I punked out. When that scene came on, I went to do the dishes.)
As aforementioned, it all ends up at Howard’s. Coffy learns that her man is, like all politicians, corrupt. Howard, unlike Arturo, knows how to talk sweet when faced with Coffy’s wrath:
Howard: Now, maybe I have done a few bad things, but that's the way the world is today. Sometimes you have to do a few, little wrong things in order to do one big right thing and that's what I'm trying to do for you and for our people: that big right thing!
Coffy: You always were a good talker, Howard.
If you think Coffy’s going to let Howard off the hook, you haven’t been paying attention.
Coffy is the best of Grier’s run of starring roles in the Blaxploitation era. Hill keeps the film tightly constructed and paced, and it delivers the goods in a savage howl of fury. Grier channels her character’s anger and vengeance right through the screen and into the deepest animal recesses of your being. People have complained about her acting (outside of her accent in the Jamaican scenes, I think she’s fine here), but nobody can deny that this woman knows how to convincingly kick ass.
In the Blaxploitation book I assigned for homework yesterday, Jack Hill expresses regret for making Coffy’s pseudo-sequel, Foxy Brown. Foxy is almost a Coffy remake, but it’s meaner, more graphic, and less tightly paced. One plus of the film, besides Pam’s creatively disgusting use of an airplane propeller, is Kathryn Loder’s performance as a dick-crazy psycho White woman, Foxy’s nemesis. Loder chews the scenery better than Shelley Winters in the prior year’s Cleopatra Jones (which is a must see), baying for her man Steve’s love rocket throughout the picture. When Foxy brings it to her, minus Steve, she recognizes it immediately and drops it on the floor. (It’s that kind of movie, folks.) As the kiss off, Grier delivers the best line she has in the series that includes (in the order I like them) Coffy, Friday Foster, Foxy Brown, and Sheba Baby:
Katherine: Why don’t you kill me too?
Foxy: Death is too good for you, bitch. I want you to SUFFER!
See why I’m in love with this woman? Even today, where you’ll find her on The L Word, Pam Grier is still a looker, and the only woman tougher than my mother! No wonder QT is in love with her, and wrote her best performance in Jackie Brown, the movie that put Sam Jackson where he belongs, in Blaxploitation!
Hurt me. Hurt me good, Ms. Grier! Wham, Bam, Thank You Pam!