Powerhouse

Pam Grier in Coffy.
  • Coffy, dir. Jack Hill, 1973.

“The world doesn’t look any less pretty when skull-bashings and stabbings take place,” the film critic Stanley Kauffmann once wrote of Shohei Imamura’s serial-killer film Vengeance Is Mine. The same could be said of Jack Hill’s Coffy, and it has everything to do with Pam Grier, who plays the title heroine. Grier is of course well known as Foxy Brown, in Foxy Brown. The eponymous titles of her films reflect her ability to command a frame, a mood within a certain shot: the chagrin she musters and slants toward the audience with just the cock of an eyebrow—she is every bit a powerhouse.

“They call her Coffy and she’ll cream you!” is an actual tagline from the movie. Suggestive analogies unfold alongside the entire film’s generous exposure of Grier. Alternately baring midriff and donning incongruous polka-dotted minidresses, Grier manhandles a shotgun and bemoans the illegal drug trade that has ruined her family. Coffy has a vendetta against drugs for a few reasons: her 11-year-old sister is addicted to heroin and in a juvenile rehabilitation center suffering from injuries endured, and her boyfriend is in two-timing cahoots with the gang lords and cops that are plotting against her and her loved ones. So how does young Coffy reconcile these betrayals? She laments in a form of a violent retribution, killing all of them, every last one.

The camera is in awe of Grier, and her sexuality pours out through, and well beyond, her presence. Her physicality is so striking, captivating, and viscerally exciting as she masquerades as a variety of prostitutes to undermine the pimps and dealers that Hill tosses before her like so many obstacles. Grier’s sex becomes a weapon to wield and control those around her, the medium through which she exposes the crooks and the cracks in the justice system. In each pulpy shot, even her loaded violence is sexualized. We are immersed in her anarchy as she prolongs the kill, waiting, knowing, that we watch her in a bemused state of agony. Each drawn-out moment and each exacting instant of brutality is as expedient as it is satiating.

Coffy belongs to the racial subgenre of “blaxploitation” that relies on a cast of predominantly black actors and focuses on “racial themes” to draw audiences. Pairing softcore appropriation of black bodies with narratives of heroic exaltation, blaxploitation films ostensibly galvanize and emphasize the lacking sociopolitical black voice in film, underscoring ’70s black resistance with the candid use of funk and soul music. Often, the result disguises debilitating stereotypes of black culture by upholding (and glorifying) them. But you can see that Hill is working against this with Coffy. Reversing the formula of other blaxploitation films that lack a certain feminine raison d’etre, Coffy’s heroine fights the bad guys with precision, a hefty amount of expletives, and feminine charm—and what is remarkable about Coffy is how feminine she is.

One could say that the film’s strong invitation to fetishize Grier and what her sexuality has to serve without once giving her the chance to possess it for herself is a misuse of the female entity. But what’s aggravating about a sex-positive woman of color seeking her revenge? Here a woman of color has agency over her own life, no longer a vehicle for someone else’s story. She has faculty and ownership, a powerful thing in cinema, where women of color are often relegated to being side stories: the maids, the nannies—the paltry victims of society’s harsh cruelty toward black skin, whose onscreen marginalization contributes to an ongoing racism that reeks in our society. There’s an astuteness that exists in Grier’s performance, and she has a natural forthrightness that makes her an incredible performer. It’s powerful to see a black woman be powerful, in her own right, for her own self.

And she does have a self—not just a body. One of my favorite lines in the film is when she’s asked, “What are you going to do? Kill all of them?” Exasperated, she replies, “Well why not? Nothing else seems to do any good!” In that moment, the veneer of badassness fades, and what’s left is the candid innocence of a sister who’s just trying to avenge her young sibling’s painful entrance into a corrupt and unfriendly world.

Coffy plays Monday, February 17 at BAM.

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