Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Coffy (USA, 1973)

(Spoilers, eventually.) Trailer. Per say, the history of black film is almost as old as that of American film in general film. While the first example of what was to eventually become the genre of Western Films—Edwin S. Porter's The Great Train Robbery (1903/full film)—generally gathers the most attention when it comes to early cinematic entertainment (as Philip Strick puts it in Movies of the Silent Years (ed. By Ann Lloyd, London, 1984), the film “has long been established as a primitive example of parallel storytelling”), another film Porter made that year gets less attention: Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Porter’s version of the novel is the first American film to feature a black character, and the title character at that. But as groundbreaking as the film was in doing this, it does still have one small flaw that detracts considerably from its historic position: Uncle Tom is played by a white man (James B. Lowe) in blackface.

As insulting as the then-common practice might seem now, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was at least a well-intended and (arguably) non-derogatory presentation of the African American, which is not the case of the shorts featuring "black" characters films that followed—titles such as Wooing and Wedding of a Coon (1905) and The Dancing Nig (1907) are typical of the time—or of D. W. Griffith’s legendary A Birth of a Nation (1915). Griffith's film may indeed hold the honor of being the first true masterpiece of US American feature-length narrative film, but it is also an unbridled tirade of anti-black sentiment in which Black Americans are divided between (black-faced) loyal fetch-its or uppity renegades out to rape white virgins (with only the Klan there to save civilization).

Partially as a response to this, according to the book A Separate Cinema (John Kisch & Edward Mapp, 1992), towards the end of the 'teens a variety of film companies (some "black-owned, others white-controlled") began appearing up and down the East Coast which specialized in films intended for screening at "big-city ghetto movie houses of the North, at segregated theaters in the South, and, on occasion, at black churches, schools and social gatherings." Oscar Micheaux’s The Homesteader (1919) is commonly accepted as the first true Afro-American feature film, and it inaugurated a long and fertile period of "a separate cinema" that still remains largely ignored when the history of American Film is discussed. Theoretically, it could be argued that the day and age of the "separate cinema" is over with, for the modern Afro-American film (like those directed by Spike Lee, Bill Duke, the Hughes Brothers or even John Singleton, for example) now tends to enjoy and are even often aimed at mainstream acceptance (and, often, a mixed audience) and, furthermore, the Afro-American actor (Denzel Washington and (cringe) Halle Berry, for example) has finally been given (an almost) equal positioning (if still in lesser numbers) within the world of Hollywood.

But this was definitely not the case in the 60s when a moving film like One Potato, Two Potato (1964) could be still be rejected at a film festival on the grounds that it featured an interracial kiss (don’t forget, Obama aside, interracial marriage in the US was still illegal in 14 states up until 1967, until the Supreme Court decided otherwise). And although a talented man like Sidney Poitier could indeed make a solid and respectable career as Hollywood’s token Afro-American big name, the mainstream film industry was still enough of a white world that even an actress as beautiful and talented as Dorothy Dandridge couldn’t maintain a viable career (at the time of her "barbiturate poisoning" in 1965, she hadn't made a film since Moment of Danger (1960). When it came to mainstream releases, whether grindhouse or first-run, the films then were meant for light-skinned faces.

But then came the 1970s and a genre of films that got dubbed Blaxploitation, a term that the Oxford English Dictionary claims was first used in the June 12, 1972 issue of New York magazine and was derived from the older term "sexploitation" (the usage of which started in 1942). If you are reading this Blog, than you probably don’t need to have the term explained, but just in case you are a stray Republican that has been too busy earning money to realize the changes in society around you—although I guess it’s hard to do since Nov 4th—the term describes a whole slew of films of varying levels of quality that were released specifically for Black America and which tackled all the genres common to mainstream films (e.g., horror, crime, family, etc). Indeed, often they were virtually straight remakes of past or current successful Hollywood films with a black cast (Cool Breeze (1972/trailer, for example, was a remake of Asphalt Jungle (1950/trailer), and William Girdler’s Abby (1974/trailer) simply retooled The Exorcist (1973/trailer). But, unlike the "separate cinema" of yesterday, although a few were black directed, most were white-controlled.

The first Blaxploitation film to show up on the scene is generally accepted as Ossie Davis's entertaining Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970/trailer), while the first one to cross the racial boundaries to become a true mixed-audience hit was Gordon Parks Sr.'s Shaft (1971/trailer)—both are early classics of the genre, although neither carries the force and anger of the first truly undisputed masterpiece of modern, political black filmmaking Mario Van Peebles' Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (1971/trailer). Still, they are amongst the classic Blaxploitation films that every true fan of the genre (or of film history in general) should see at least once. Other classics of the genre also include (but are not limited to) Gordon Parks Jr.'s Super Fly (1972/trailer), William Crain's decidedly trashier movie Blacula (1971/trailer)—although his undervalued and forgotten Dr Black and Mr Hyde (1976/trailer) is actually more fun—and the film that this blog entry is actually about: Jack Hill's exploitation masterpiece (among many), Coffy (1973).

Coffy is the product of white boy Jack Hill, who was a 40-year-old low-budget sleaze specialist by the time he got pulled in to write and direct Coffy, which is only one of many excellent films he put his fingers to. An undeservedly forgotten filmmaker, Hill pretty much dropped out of filmmaking by the end of the polyester decade to go New Age. But prior to his discovery of meditation, he directed an interesting array of exploitation films, the most notable being Spider Baby (1968/trailer), The Big Doll House (1971/trailer), The Big Bird Cage (1972/trailer), Foxy Brown (1973/trailer) and Switchblade Sisters (1975/trailer). A specialist in trash movies, even his worst films generally serve up a decent portion of everything slime-film lovers want: violence and tits. But Coffy is in no way his worst film; in fact, alongside Spider Baby, it is surely his best. Coffy is a groundbreaking and true Blacksploitation classic that, until the DVD revolution, one tended to read about more often than to see. But, once Tarentino rehabilitated the film’s director by claiming Jack Hill as one of his biggest influences, Coffy suddenly became rather easy to find. And that’s how it should be, for Coffy is some fine trash that definitely is worth renting. Sleaze? Sure it is—but top notch sleaze, to say the least.

A vigilante film, Coffy not only beat Death Wish (trailer) to the theaters by a full year, but it also almost makes Charles Bronson's legendary film seem like a television movie in comparison. Beautiful Pam "Mammary" Grier does a true star-making turn as the movie’s title character. Her eye-sizzling attributes of an Afro-American Venus, combined with a solid script that barrels along at full speed and Jack Hill’s equally competent direction, combine to make Coffy a Blaxploiation masterpiece that has to be seen to be believed. The original posters and newspaper adverts for Pam Grier's first lead role say Coffy is "the baddest one chick hit-squad that ever hit town," and she spends most of the film justifying the description, when she isn't baring her bodacious boobs. Within the first ten minutes, we don't just get to see some teasing cleavage followed by a delicious nipple peeking when she appears as (seemingly) a strung-out but hot-looking babe willing to spread her legs for a couple of sleazebags in exchange for a fix, but we're graphically treated to her blowing a drug dealer's head off with a double barreled shot gun and then forcing a junkie to shoot up bad drugs. (An audacious introduction to a movie hero if there ever was one—she does all that before we even know the driving force behind her actions.)

A pretty innocuous sounding title song from jazz man Roy Ayers pops in for the credits, and then it's on with some prime sleaze, liberally peppered with pathos and more tits than normally seen in a non-porn film from the 70s. Coffy is an ER nurse out for some revenge after some tainted shit sent her 11-yearold sister catatonic. Between working, committing homicide and giving her wanna-be congressman boyfriend Howard Brunswick (Booker Bradshaw) blowjobs, Coffy spends her time brooding whether her actions are morally justifiable or not, hanging out at the rehab clinic where her sister stares at the walls or chilling with her childhood (ex) sweetheart Carter Brown (William Elliott). Carter is an honest cop who later unwittingly plants the seed in Coffy's head that the only real way to stop the drugs is not at the bottom with the pushers but at the top with drug lords. Carter gets a baseball bat to his head (and Coffy gets her love pillows manhandled) when he refuses to be bought by the Las Vegas mob moving into town, so Coffy's doesn't need est to get motivated or lose the last of her qualms. In a bikini and to the sound of someone singing "He's a pimp, he's a pusher" she hooks up with King George (Robert Do Qui, remembered by most people—if at all—as Sergeant Reed in the RoboCop films), becomes part of his stable of hot hussies and manages to switch all his heroin for sugar. One catfight later in which Grier manages to pull down the tops of every attacking hooker in the room she has a date with the woman-beating top man of the operation, and soon she is crawling across the floor gun in hand to blow away his balls. Unluckily for her, she gets stopped by his men, who recognize her from the night they fondled her boobs and made Carter a vegetable. Thinking King George set them up, they promptly take care of King George for Coffy and, after revealing to her that even her man Howard is on everything, take her out to be eliminated. After shooting her up with King George's "heroin," bad boy Omar (cult character actor Sid Haig) decides to bonk the babe in the dirt under an overpass and gets a sharpened hair pin through his jugular as a reward. Within twenty minutes, everyone but Coffy meets their maker, our avenging angle walking off into the sunrise to the sound of someone singing "It's not the end it's the beginning."

One of the first and the few Blaxploitation films that features a strong female main character, for all its exploitative elements—and there are a lot—the film still portrays Coffy as one strong, intelligent woman that knows how to get what she wants. And if some women decry how Coffy uses her curves and physical desirability to do so—and is thus just another male fantasy as a result—they simply fail to take into account that she uses the same weapons that such fantasy film figures as James Bond or Shaft use to get what they want: their natural sexual attractiveness. She is far less an easy lay than a powerful woman who knows just how idiotically one-track a man's mind is, and she merely uses the simplest of weapons to take advantage of their weakest spot. That her fabulous love pillows billow so much in the process simply adds "realism". (The realism might have been heightened—and a greater level of equality achieved—had a pickle shot or two been included in the film, but back then—like now—the general masses of the USA were deadly frightened by penises.) True, her natural, 100% non-silicon curves are displayed in this film to an extent that such beauty is seldom shown in a whitebread mainstream release, but hell, as a result it is only all the more easier to understand why the men in Coffy do dumb things when she jiggles in their direction... something that cannot be said of all the women that get wet and swoon in desire whenever Roger Moore (the James Bond of the time) merely glances at them.

Regrettably, in all truth, as strong as Coffy is throughout the film, the last scene in the movie undermines every woman-empowering aspect of her personality. Whereas her previous actions were driven by anger and desperation resulting from the drugs and violence around her, the last person she blows away she kills not out of moral rage but due to the anger of a spurred woman: while she almost caves in to Howard’s smooth justifications of his involvement in the mafia, when the half-naked white chick strolls out of his bedroom cooing his name, she blows him away out of simple jealousy.

Nonetheless, Coffy is a film that has to be seen. Do so, now. And now that we have Obama as our president, isn’t it about time Pam Grier got a star on Hollywood Boulevard?

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