Last night the Independent Film Channel showed a couple of '70s blaxploitation movies with Pam Grier: Foxy Brown and Coffy. When I watched them, in 2009, in Obama's America, I found both of them to be the guiltiest of guilty pleasures. They are racist, sexist movies, but I got caught up in them.
They are low budget movies made by American-International, a company not known for making art films, but films to be produced cheap that played on drive-in movie screens. What the producers didn't know was that with Foxy Brown and Coffy, despite eyebrow-raising views of black people, drug use and criminal activities, they were making feminist movies about strong black women. Pam Grier is statuesque and beautiful. When she made these movies she was in her mid-twenties (born in 1949). There are nude shots of her, and yes, they are gratuitous. Coffy is a pretty simple movie with a simple plot. With a sawed-off shotgun she wreaks revenge on drug dealers and corrupt politicians. She uses sex as a tool to get the bad guys in her sights. Not a role model for young girls, by any means, but someone using her wits in a dangerous business in a world of violent men.
What the filmmakers were trying to do was play to a low common denominator: people who like violence and sex; white people who think black people are all pimps, prostitutes, or heroin junkies. Prejudices are reinforced with these movies. In the early 1970s even distinguished actors like Lou Gossett and Robert DoQui were playing pimps in outrageous costumes. They were ridiculous caricatures, and while pandering to white racism, the producers manipulated black audiences, a whole demographic until then uncatered to, eager to see their own people on movie screens. For every noble African-American character played by Sidney Poitier, Brock Peters, James Earl Jones or Ossie Davis, the audience for black movies also had heroes like Richard Roundtree as Shaft, a "black private dick who's a sex machine with all the chicks," or Ron O'Neal as Super Fly, a drug dealer-hero, and then they had heroines like Coffy and Foxy Brown, both played by Pam Grier.
There is a lot wrong with these movies. They are embarrassing in their production values, their racial viewpoints, both black and white. In order to appeal to black audiences the white characters are even more corrupt and rotten than the black characters. But the movies were written, directed, produced and distributed by white people. It was a cynical tactic.
Despite all that there was Pam Grier. Looking at her then, and even now in her mature years, there is a beauty and intelligence that transcends the material she was given to work with. In 1997 she starred in Quentin Tarantino's Jackie Brown, chosen for the part because of his fondness for movies like Coffy and Foxy Brown. She showed in Jackie Brown she was an A-list talent, not just a pretty face and great body, but a genuinely fine actress.
As motion pictures, Coffy and Foxy Brown are sleazy, violent, and exploitative. In other words, all of those things that we want in a drive-in movie. But they had one thing that raised them up above their material, and that was Pam Grier.