Pam Grier does Shaft
No-budget girls-in-chains exploitation flick writer/director Jack Hill made a foray into female-driven Blaxploitation thrillers with this genre classic, establishing upcoming starlet Pam Grier as the female equivalent to Richard Roundtree’s Shaft.Rushed into production in order to beat the competing studio’s equivalent, Cleopatra Jones, out of the gate, Coffy was just about as low budget as it gets, but Jack Hill – who, ironically given the impact he had on the Blaxploitation genre, was not actually African-American himself – somehow managed to hold the production together at least enough to stand as a minimalist revenge thriller whose high points overshadow the limited script, action, acting, and just about everything else bad, on offer.Indeed it’s probably as much to do with icon Pam Grier’s star power as it has to do with Hill’s twisty genre subversiveness, as Grier’s nurse-turned-executioner genuinely convinces in what was quite a strikingly against-type role. This was a non-male, non-white character who was educated, had a professional job, and expressed a distaste for drugs. It was almost unheard of in the early 70s. Hell, it took a few years before Dirty Harry broke in his first female partner, and even she was white.
The story has Coffy determined to get the drug dealers and scumbags who destroyed the life of her kid sister. To that end, Grier’s anti-heroine uses whatever skills she can bring to bear, from her fists to her guns to her sexual prowess; seducing her largely male targets to get them to put their guards down, all the while intent on sending them all to hell, one by one.
One of Tarantino's Top 20 favourite films, he paid the utmost tribute by fashioning his own Blaxploitation flick in Jackie Brown.
With Grier remarkably convincing in every one of her guises – from high drug-addict to high-class escort; from hard-working nurse to hard-ass avenging angel, you can see why Tarantino fell in love with the girl, although it’s not quite as easy to see why Tarantino counts this amongst his Top 20 films of all time. Sure, it’s subversive in its re-definition of the male-dominated genre which, itself, had already redefined the white-dominance previously held by the genre, but it’s very rough around the edges, and not even as action-driven as its pseudo-sequel (they changed the name at the last minute, but it was otherwise written, and intended to be a sequel), Foxy Brown. Still, Coffy stands as the first of its kind, and remains pretty memorable just for that.
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