Olive Films recently released several Blaxploitation titles on Blu-ray for the first time, all on the same day. This included the Fred Williamson-starring Hammer, from 1972, as well as three Pam Grier films: Coffy (1973), Foxy Brown (1974), and Friday Foster (1975). Hammer isn’t a particular favorite, but these latter three were most welcome, especially Coffy, which is quite possibly the greatest of all Blaxploitation features, even better than the more popular Shaft (1971) and Super Fly (1972). As much as anything, these three releases are notable for showcasing Grier at her finest during a period of immensely enjoyable work and exceptional productivity—15 films from her minor debut in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970) to Friday Foster. Around these films, she also starred in several other classics of 1970s exploitation cinema: Black Mama White Mama (1973), Scream Blacula Scream (1973), The Arena (1974), Sheba, Baby (1975), and Bucktown (1975).
“If I say she’s something special, she’s something special.” So declares a young hood at the start of Coffy, enticing a drug kingpin to check out Pam Grier’s titular character as she waits for him in a car. She’s pretending to be a junkie in need of a fix, hoping the ruse will get her closer to finding out who has been selling heroin to, among other people, her pre-teen sister. Before Grier appears on screen though, she is built up to be one phenomenal woman, one this man has to see to believe. It’s not quite the entrance of Orson Welles in The Third Man or John Wayne in Stagecoach, but when Grier does make her first appearance, the hype is justified. This Coffy is something else, and as the film progresses, she becomes something even better.
Coffy is a nurse by trade, but she’s a nurse who doesn’t hesitate to blow a man’s head off with a shotgun. During her off hours, she is a determined vigilante, out to punish the drug-dealers and gangsters who have been plaguing her city and her own family. Coffy has vengeance on her mind, and seeing the conflict of interest between the police and local politicians, she knows there’s more to the shady goings on than just the usual criminal exploits. Carter (William Elliott), Coffy’s old flame and seemingly the one cop who refuses to play ball with the generally corrupt police force, pays for his decency and winds up in the hospital. So with her only hope of collaboration out of commission, it’s an uphill battle for Coffy. Her vengeful side doesn’t always come easy—she knows it’s not good, or at any rate, it’s not legal—but what she has seen, like her sister LuBelle’s tragic condition and Carter’s injuries, continue to haunt her and keep her moving forward.
Originally intended as a sequel to Coffy, revenge figures into Foxy Brown’s narrative as well. This time, Grier’s title character is after those who killed her boyfriend, Michael Anderson (Terry Carter), an undercover narcotics agent who fakes his death, undergoes plastic surgery to alter his appearance, and attempts to start anew with Foxy. To make matters worse, her brother, an irresponsible coke dealer whom Foxy kindly takes in when he needs help, is the one who drops the dime about Michael’s true identity. Though she has a gun on her bedside table—at the suggestion of Michael—her capacity for violence is initially less pronounced than Coffy’s. But make no mistake, she can most certainly be violent. And while Michael has his doubts about vigilante justice, Foxy contends it’s “as American as apple pie.”
This time, in charge of the whole operation, and the final boss to take down, is another woman, making the progressive notion of strong female leaders (even if they’re a criminal) all the more prevalent. The explicit female empowerment of Coffy and Foxy Brown is clear and present throughout, and no doubt helped give these types of films a broader audience across the gender aisle. Someone in Foxy Brown asks just who Foxy thinks she is. As her brother responds, “That’s my sister … and she’s a whole lotta woman.” Or later in the film, when one character inquires as to whether or not Foxy is crazy, and another counters with, “She’s just all woman.” A woman being not only powerful, but innately powerful because of her sex, is part of what makes Grier’s characters so memorable and so stirring. Yet as tough and aggressive as she often is, Grier in these films is still a women after all. In Coffy, for example, she yearns for romantic getaways and enjoys passionate activities like sipping wine, naked, by the fire. That’s another thing Grier does very well: balancing the woman as action hero with the woman as sensitive individual, proving that they need not be mutually exclusive.
Jack Hill directed Coffy and Foxy Brown, as well as The Big Doll House (1971) and The Big Bird Cage (1972), two pillars of the surprisingly entertaining “women in prison” movie cycle from the 1970s, both of which also featured Grier. With Coffy in particular, Hill basks in the conventions of Blaxploitation. It has great music courtesy of Roy Ayers—maybe the best from any Blaxploitation film, save for Curtis Mayfield’s excellent work on Super Fly and possibly Earth, Wind & Fire’s music from Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971). And in the best unabashed exploitation style, Hill throws in plenty of sex and violence, punctuating it all with big, bold colors and characters who are equally audacious, like the requisite pimp with his own theme song, King George (Robert DoQui).
Having worked with Hill and Grier on The Big Doll House and The Big Bird Cage, Sid Haig, an icon of the era and of these exploitation films in particular, pops up in both Coffy and Foxy Brown. He’s a pretty typical thug in Coffy, but in Foxy Brown, he briefly appears as one of his classic characterizations: goofy, humorous, almost charismatic in a way, and happily residing on the wrong side of the law without necessarily being a “bad guy.”
Foxy Brown contains many Blaxploitation staples and is one of the most famous films of the genre, if for no other reason than Quentin Tarantino’s riff on the title with the Pam Grier-starring Jackie Brown (1997), which, incidentally, also references Hill, features Haig in a cameo, contains music from Coffy, has a song by rap artist Foxy Brown, and includes the track “Long Time Woman,” which Grier sings during the opening credits of The Big Doll House—all of this par for the film reference course when it comes to Tarantino (and there’s even more at that). In any case, Foxy Brown is considerably less flashy than Coffy, in its visuals and its more restrained characters, but it’s still got everything a fan of these films could want.
Arthur Marks directs Friday Foster, and the film’s roster of stars boast more recognizable names than these prior two entries, among them Eartha Kitt, Carl Weathers, and Scatman Crothers, who plays a preacher, just like he did in the Detroit 9000 (1973), another very good title from the period also directed by Marks. Based on a comic strip character of the same name, Friday Foster is a photojournalist who witnesses an apparent assassination attempt and is promptly and unwittingly in over her head. A friend of Friday’s is also eventually killed, and that serves as part of her motivation for investigating the incident, but Friday Foster isn’t necessarily a revenge film per se. Though to be quite honest, the somewhat convoluted plot of intrigue and multi-leveled manipulation really doesn’t make much difference anyway.
Like Coffy and Foxy, Friday gets frustrated with the lack of support from law enforcement, a fairly common theme in Blaxploitation films, except when, as in the case of Shaft for example, the heroes are themselves cops or detectives (even then though, said individuals often have to buck an incompetent system to get the job done). In any case, Friday confidently uses her investigative instincts and takes initiative herself. Unlike Coffy and Foxy, though, Friday isn’t entirely on her own. Yaphet Kotto plays Colt Hawkins, a good-natured private investigator who emerges as Friday’s somewhat reluctant partner in crime fighting. Their flirtatious, amusing interaction is probably the best part of the film.
Friday may have had some contact with the underworld as part of her work, but as opposed to Coffy or Foxy, she has no direct prior experience with such disreputable lifestyles; we sense that Friday is more comfortable moving in high-class circles, at least more so than these earlier Grier characters. Though she used to be a model, Friday also doesn’t possess anywhere near the blatant physical exhibitionism of Coffy and Friday. That’s not to say she isn’t a smooth operator—Friday knows what works and what’s going to get her where she wants to go. But more than her attractiveness, it’s her journalistic savvy and intrepid spirit that gets her the scoop of her career, even if it just might cost her life.
Friday Foster itself definitely isn’t as sordid as the other two features, and it actually comes across as more of a detective film than a straightforward Blaxploitation movie; there’s undeniably less of an exploitation flair, with no gratuitous nudity or graphic violence, as well as fewer “types”, rather than developed “characters.”
Both Coffy and Foxy Brown are adamantly anti-drug, in their verbal condemnation and in their depiction of the types of people who deal in illicit substances. The more overt social commentary, however, is noted in Foxy Brown, both from Foxy’s brother, who passionately states the struggles for black opportunity, and a prostitute, who comments on her inability to emancipate herself from such a lifestyle. Though in a different way than the grittier Coffy, this gives Foxy Brown something of an increased realism, or at least a real-world grounding. Other topical subjects are peppered throughout these films: the presence of armed black militants in Foxy Brown; Friday’s young brother stealing her gifts with the intent of selling them off himself—”black capitalism” he calls his makeshift enterprise; and police and political corruption running rampant. Some may decry these films as silly, or even racist to a certain extent, but few American movies playing to wide audiences were broaching these issues as they affected the African American community in particular, and they certainly weren’t doing so this frequently.
In all three of these films, Grier uses what she has in terms of sexual prowess and feminine wiles, but she has more than just looks. She’s caring, competent, independent, strong, and driven. She’s inventive too. See Coffy, for example, when prior to fighting a handful of prostitutes, she embeds razor blades in her curly locks, apparently anticipating the cliché female fight response to pull hair (and she has a gun stashed away in her afro in Foxy Brown!). Also in Coffy, she cleverly starts infighting amongst the various factions, so while she pursues her own goals, the opposing groups begin taking each other down as well. One additional trait that Coffy and Foxy share is a fondness for adopting undercover personalities; curiously, the names of these pretend characterizations are strikingly similar: the Jamaican “Mystique” in Coffy and “Misty” in Foxy Brown.
Coffy, Foxy Brown, and Friday Foster are all perfect vehicles for Grier, especially during this time. While one may argue her acting isn’t the best thing in the world, and the characters in these movies aren’t quite as politically correct as some would prefer today, Pam Grier is excellent playing these parts. Even in just the three titles here, one sees a steady development of personality, from an instrument of badass retribution to serious, efficient pro. Standing up for the weak, taking down the corrupt, and seeking justice for all, Pam Grier in these films is the ultimate lone hero, fighting the good fight and looking great while doing it.