Paul Duane traces the trajectories of violence and satire in Coffy, which is out on Blu-ray today.
Watching a blaxploitation film ‘clean’, innocent of the layers of irony & halfwitted homage that have grown around the genre, is an entirely impossible task. Maybe that’s the way it should be – these films were not intended as art, the clue is in the suffix. It’s exploitation, made for a niche black audience that attended the movies faithfully, in droves, sometimes repeatedly.
Of course, the genre, as often happens, had started out as something genuinely ground-breaking, with Melvin Van Peebles’ head-spinningly weird, filthy, funky Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, an agit-prop Kill Whitey story that was famously ‘rated X by an all-white jury’. It’s still, for me, the high water mark of blaxploitation, for the simple reason that it isn’t exploitation at all. It’s a howl of anger and a call to arms. As such, it’s never been equalled. It inspired Spike Lee’s career, a decade later. And it also inspired a ton of Hollywood executives to water its aesthetic down into a thin but financially viable gruel, intended for black audiences only, but mostly written, directed & produced by whites.
The major studios had already had their go; Shaft, at MGM, and Superfly, at Warners, but when AIP, the venerable independent that had given Roger Corman his first home, decided to get into the business, there was still a ton of money to be made there. AIP’s core business of horror, supplemented by biker flicks, wasn’t bringing in the numbers it used to. So they started making stories about black characters, for black audiences.
The economics were persuasive. The stars came cheap – Blacula’s William Marshall and Black Caesar’s Fred Williamson were not going to break the bank. Pam Grier was in the same mould but somehow, they fluked into something special with her. She could act. Not just that – she was that elusive thing, a star. Her presence often brings to mind that of Barbara Stanwyck in her early Warner Brothers programmers, films like Night Nurse or Baby Face. There’s the same mix – an unconventionally beautiful face, a superficial sexiness concealing a depth-charge of strength. No wonder she fit so well into the propulsive world of the ’70s revenge thriller, which was often clearly modelled on the Warners melodramas of the 30s.
She co-headlined AIP’s first, cheap and nasty attempt at blaxploitation, Black Mama, White Mama, then featured in Jack Hill’s epochally astounding The Big Bird Cage. Both films did well, so they were followed by Blacula, Slaughter, and Black Caesar. The formula was straightforward; take an existing genre classic (Dracula, Little Caesar, or the long established ‘women in prison’ story), add black characters and setting, wait for the ker-ching.
Which brings us to their biggest ker-ching of all; Jack Hill’s Coffy, the film that crossed over to a white audience, making AIP aware they were on to a good thing.
Jack Hill is, for me, a director’s director – a craftsman whose craft is to make his contribution almost invisible, but whose films exude a thematic unity that supersede their peculiar sources. This is the basis of the auteur theory, and an auteur is not, as it has come to be believed, a control freak or egomaniac – an auteur is a director with a personal style, visible across a wide range of heterogenous projects. So it is with Hill.
His Spider Baby is a beatnik burlesque rip-off of Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived In The Castle, carried off with breezy absurdity and freakish horror. The Big Bird Cage & The Big Doll House look forward to the works of John Waters in their nihilistic craziness and humour. Switchblade Sisters is a girl gang epic that is beyond description, perhaps beyond understanding. And Coffy is pure, high-octane crazy, a hyper-sexualised, hyper-violent social satire.
The film’s violence, though, has a clearly delineated momentum, starting with Nurse Flowerchild Coffin – Coffy – graphically blowing away a couple of low-level black drug dealers. She blames them for the fact that her eleven year old sister is a junkie. Her only ally is Carter, a decent cop who asks her “What are you gonna do, kill all the pushers, then go to Viet Nam and kill all the farmers who grow it?”, to which she answers, “Why not?” Black on black violence is her starting point, and the film takes her – and the audience – on a journey away from, and finally back towards, this grim scenario.
Carter has turned down the opportunity to get in on some crooked drug money and is crippled by two masked thugs in the movie’s first act of white on black violence, followed by one of my favourite medical diagnoses in all of cinema: “How is he, Doc?” “Well, in time, he may be able to use the bathroom unaided.” Thanks, Dr Hibbert.
Coffy now drops her initial strategy and follows the money, moving up the line to get to the white mobsters who run the business, via a gullible super-pimp named King George. His murder by white goons is specifically staged as a modern-day lynching and is far more disturbing and awful than you’d expect of the death of a buffoonish minor player in an exploitation film. It’s the film’s second and most horrific example of white on black violence, and one that would have had a massive effect, I imagine, if watched by a black audience at the time of release.
After that we move into the final stages, where Coffy takes her revenge. Black on white violence is what the entire dynamic of the film has been leading up to, and after the long build-up, this release had better be spectacular. It is.
She stabs big Sid Haig in the neck with a sharpened hair-pin, leaving him to whine and beg as he bleeds out in the middle of nowhere. She burns Carter’s crooked partner to death in his own cop car and listens to his dying screams. She drives head-on into another villain, smashing him along with his home, and shoots the big mob player – the one who had earlier spat on her, ordered her to crawl and to beg him to fuck her – as he bobs up and down helplessly, childishly, in a swimming pool.
(Note: This final character is played by Allan Arbus in one of his earliest major roles after his career switch from photography, where he’s now best remembered as Diane Arbus’s husband and mentor. You may also remember him as Larry David’s Uncle Nathan, who really didn’t abuse Larry sexually despite what Larry told the incest survivor’s group.)
But the story’s final reveal pulls the rug out from under Coffy, though not from the audience. The man she loves – a black politician on the way up – has been selling out his own people while hiding behind boilerplate clichés about pride and community. He is the ultimate beneficiary of the drug trade that’s killing her family and her people. And he’s been seeing a blonde, white woman on the side.
The film saves the most humilating death for him, as Coffy shoots him in the groin before walking off down the beach, distraught and alone. Her future is uncertain but Roy Ayers’ closing song tells us what’s in store. It’s a bleak prognosis. “The law surrounds you/The jail engulfs you/Darkness conceals your sable soul”, he sings, before, a bit unconvincingly, trying to turn it round with a chorus that calls her “a shining symbol of black pride.” Maybe so, but Sweetback, who evades a state-wide manhunt, swims to Mexico and promises to come back and settle some scores, might be a more, y’know, positive role model.
AIP made fifteen more such films over the following three years, ending with the abject silliness of 1976’s The Monkey Hu$tle, a film so pointless that Roger Ebert was reduced to reviewing the seats in the cinema where he saw it. Jack Hill’s career didn’t go much further, though he made at least one more genre classic before walking away from the world of low-budget craziness.
Among the trivia I learned from the extras on this Blu-ray (which is, by the way, gorgeous; a low-budget AIP movie has no right to look this good) was the fact that we apparently have Hill to thank for John Milius’ directing career (he walked out on directing Dillinger, allowing Milius to jump in and take over, and a terrific little movie resulted, too). Also, there was going to be a sequel to Coffy, titled Burn, Coffy! Burn! The title changed to Foxy Brown, the film has become even more iconic than Coffy, but the earlier film is the real deal and the best way to experience Pam Grier in her prime.
Coffy is out now.