You can’t really talk about blaxploitation cinema without talking about Pam Grier. Blaxploitation is the genre of film that emerged in the 1970s as many films in the exploitation genre were made to target black audiences. An exploitation film is a film that typically goes against type in terms of producing expensive productions, instead choosing to be rather economical and rely on the bolder interests of the filmgoer. Exploitation films typically feature little to no artistic value, by most definitions, and are rather eyed towards a quick profit and high-pressure sales. That’s how Ephraim Katz defines the genre, anyway, in his “The Film Encyclopedia.” In my terms, there is indeed artistic value to exploitation cinema and the volumes that such films speak for parts of culture cannot be ignored.
Most exploitation films are targeted towards an adult audience. As the censors relaxed their standards during the 1960s, Hollywood began to play with more liberal filmmaking components. Forbidden sex, wanton violence, drug use, gore, monsters, nudity, rebellion, and general mayhem began to take over. While by today’s standards, those elements seem rather puritanical, by the standards in the 1960s and 1970s, those elements were new ground for most filmmakers. Blaxploitation sprang out of the exploitation genre with films like 1971’s Shaft and 1972’s Superfly. These films tended to feature elements like pimps, ghettoes, drug dealers, hit men, and other criminal elements. White people were frequently the villains or were relatively negative characters and sexuality was ramped up considerably.
As well as stereotyping white people, these films stereotyped black people. There was actually a Coalition Against Blaxploitation that was developed on the part of cooperation from The Urban League, The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. These groups railed against blaxploitation films for setting black people back in time and very likely caused the demise of the genre, for the most part, by the late 1970s. A lot of current films, however, owe a lot to the genre in terms of thematic elements. Many say blaxploitation never left but rather it simply evolved. With the “gangsta” themes in rap music from the 1990s seeping into films, many people argued that those films were a revival of sorts for blaxploitation. Regardless, the impact of the genre cannot be discounted and there are plenty of memorable films within it that should be checked out by anyone with an interest in entertaining cinema.
Coffy is one such film. With Pam Grier as the lead character, Coffy helped catapult the actress to stardom. She had previously been in a string of exploitation films, including a few “women in prison” films. Once she had the reigns in Coffy, however, all hell broke loose and she became an icon of the genre. Blessed with a full figure and great looks, Grier took on the role of Coffy, the vigilante, with reckless abandon. Coffy is a nurse by day and a vigilante by night, called to the streets of justice to conduct a one-woman war on drugs after her sister is taken in by drug addiction. Coffy’s vengeance-fuelled mission takes her to some dark places, but she’s the baddest one chick hit squad that ever hit town, as the poster says. The film, through Coffy’s journey, examines issues of drug use on the streets, gangs, pimps, and the role of women.
Coffy was directed by Jack Hill, who is somewhat of an icon in the exploitation genre. Hill would work with Grier again a year later on the film that really made things for Grier, Foxy Brown. His direction is overdone in all of the right places, using several quick cuts and edits to quicken the pace of the film. These effects and camera techniques were used time and time again in the genre and are often lampooned today in film, but I believe they served a very succinct purpose for the filmmakers. For one thing, Hill’s quick cuts made the story move at a greater pace than it would have without it. For another thing, quickly cutting away from a body or another figure on the screen is a very practical way to avoid using too much by way of cost to dress a proper stuntman. In many scenes, the stuntmen and stuntwomen are obvious, but Hill’s direction minimizes the damage and ups the ante for entertainment.
Of course, Pam Grier is greatness personified in this film. As Coffy, she’s tough but vulnerable. The way the action keys up and down throughout the film is brilliantly woven with her bouts of sadness for the situation she’s in. She kills these drug dealers and pimps because she can’t figure out a way that the justice system will work for her. Coffy’s plight is one of helplessness wrapped up in scorn, as she blasts away the final baddies with vengeance and fear, all at once. It helps that she’s absolutely drop-dead gorgeous and has these great, big, heaving……eyes. She makes no bones about using her assets, too. A general rule of thumb for the film is “if a boob can fall out, it will fall out.”
In a day and age that claims empowerment, it’s interesting to see realized empowerment coming from a genre and a time period in which empowerment was espoused to be barely existent. Pam Grier’s Coffy doesn’t need assistance and she doesn’t need a man, either. All she needs is her attitude, her charm, her assets, and a shotgun. Coffy may be an exploitation picture, but I still found it far less exploitative than what passes for most modern film. This film has guts and it’s well worth watching for fans of the genre. Coffy is a hit!