Thursday 27 April 2023

Coffy (1973)

Director: Jack Hill
Writer: Jack Hill
Stars: Pam Grier, Booker Bradshaw, Robert Doqui, William Elliott, Allan Arbus and Sid Haig

Index: The First Thirty.

This project is reenforcing just how many fantastic exploitation pictures Pam Grier made in the seventies. It’s certainly not all of them, but Women in Cages, The Big Bird Cage and Black Mama White Mama makes three winners out of eight, with Coffy a fourth, along with being the first of her classics made back home in the U.S.

I’ve seen it before, though it’s been a while, and, watching in context, it surprised me with its originality. Cool Breeze and Hit Man, a couple of films I hadn’t previously seen, are just what blaxploitation did, nothing original at all. This isn’t remotely like either of them.

For a start, Pam Grier doesn’t have a small role here, playing something stereotypical like a hooker or a porn star. She’s the lead, not just the female lead but the lead who’s female, and she’s an entirely respectable ER nurse dating a city councilman. That was unusual.

Apparently, AIP lost the rights to Cleopatra Jones, which should have pioneered this genre, to Warner Bros., so quickly threw a female-led blaxploitation of their own into production to beat the original to screens, which it did. It’s a better film too, which didn’t hurt, but it was a pioneer, just like The Big Doll House was a mere two years earlier.

For another thing, it doesn’t play into any of the usual stereotypes. Black leaders during the blaxploitation era often condemned them for doing exactly that, but it’s an anti-drug movie. Coffy spends her days saving lives, but she was unable to save her sister, Lubelle, a young girl now living in a Juvenile Rehabilitation Center attempting to recover from cocaine addiction and failing because her brain’s fried.

And that’s why our respectable nurse shows up at a funky restaurant as a strung out gift to a drug dealer. She’ll do anything for a fix, she suggests, so they head back to his place while the opening credits roll. And, when he turns out the lights, she blows his head off with her sawn off shotgun, then forces an overdose on his pusher. And then she goes back to the ER.

If that suggests that this is another tough as nails revenge flick with Coffy a tough as nails killer, you’d be missing a key detail. Coffy has the toughness to do whatever it takes and she spends the movie proving that, but every one of these violent acts takes a toll on her. When she gets to work after her first two kills, she’s quickly relieved of duty because she’s shaking. She suffers from PTSD for most of this film.

She does have a support group, not that any of them know what she’s doing. Her boyfriend, Howard Brunswick, is preparing to campaign for a Congress run. He’s friends with the chief of police, Ruben Ramos. Lower down the chain of command, her childhood friend Carter is a good cop in a city of bad ones, so much so that he isn’t just not in on his partner’s dirtiness, he’s going to report him for it. That’s enough for two large thugs to break into his house and beat him so hard that he’s promptly confined to a hospital bed with brain damage.

And that, of course, just means more targets for Coffy and, as much as this often feels like a drama rather than an exploitation flick, it has no hesitation in getting exploitative. And thus Coffy goes looking for trouble.

The best thing about the film is that she has no trouble finding it. King George is one of the big shots in town, a pimp and drug dealer, and rumour has it that Arturo Vitroni, a mob boss from Las Vegas, may be moving in. Guess who she’s gunning for next?

The worst thing about the film is that she’s tasked with pretending to be a hooker new in town from Jamaica and, while I enjoyed Grier’s acting throughout most of this, especially her sincerity, dedication and attitude but also her vulnerability, none of that extends to her truly abysmal Jamaican accent, which is worse than mine, mon.

And so, while King George, in his outrageous outfit with serious camel toe, can be forgiven for practically drooling while he looks at Coffy lounging by the pool, we have to question his judgement if he buys into that accent.

It’s so bad that I was almost thankful when she’s rumbled before she can kill one bad guy, crawling along the floor towards him while he spits on her and hurls abuse her way. It means that she can shift back to her regular voice to deliver a pristine “white motherfucker” at him before badass security guard Omar, played by Sid Haig, walks in and punches her out.

That’s another departure from the norm. In most blaxploitation movies, the vast majority of characters, including every lead, are black, as you might expect, with a token white dude here and there to represent the Man. This one is certainly more black than white and most of the leads are black, but there are a lot of white actors here too.

Booker Bradshaw is excellent as Brunswick, William Elliott is believably decent as Carter and Robert DoQui has a blast as King George. All those are black, but the white actors go far beyond Sid Haig, who’s almost a requirement at this point. Carter’s bad partner McHenry is an easy to hate Barry Cahill and Vitroni is, of all people, played by Allan Arbus, who clearly has a blast playing a mob boss.

As fun as it as to watch all of these, it’s still Pam Grier’s show, from beginning to end, and she dominates the picture, not just through a solid performance but through the situations a knowing script throws her into. Sure, it screws up by making her pretend to be Jamaican, but it gifts her with plenty of other opportunities.

Taking down Sugarman and Grover right at the outset is just a beginning, the effects work as she blows the former’s head off startling. I loved the catfights between Mystique, Coffy’s Jamaican persona, and her fellow hookers. The most legendary scene there has her put razor blades into her afro to slice open the hands of whichever girl grabs her there. The bedroom assassination attempt scene is a highlight too, as is the chase scene late in the movie.

Coffy’s been caught and driven to be given a O.D. under a freeway bridge. She talks her way out of the car, but that just begins an attempt to get away that’s far from trivial and a heck of a lot of fun. The final├ęs are highly satisfying too, both of them.

And so, after three memorable exploitation films out of eight, Pam Grier got her big break in number nine and she nailed it, making this a gamechanger for her and for the genre.

Well, except for that Jamaican accent.

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