Pam Grier leaves the sawed-offs and razor blades behind for Quentin Tarantino’s mid-life masterwork.
The poster for Jack Hill’s 1973 seminal Blaxploitation classic, Coffy reads, “She’s the ‘Godmother’ of them all…the baddest one-chick hit-squad that ever hit town.” Looming defiantly above a fiery mass of explosions, car chases, fistfights, pimps, prostitutes, and underworld goons is Pam Grier. A sawed-off shotgun cocked against her bare midriff, Grier epitomizes power, sexuality, and terror. Society’s tolerance for such an antagonistic and boastful display of exploitation trappings has seesawed back and forth over the years. You can condemn it as grotesque trash cinema reveling in the baser instincts of humanity, or celebrate it as a turning point when African American actors were finally allowed to be the heroes and heroines of their stories.
Looking back with the oh-so enlightened vision of 2017, it is easy to dismiss a film like Coffy with its blouse ripping catfights, King George lynching, and drug-fueled revenge plot as hedonistic, reprehensible junk food. You’re missing the point. Pam Grier is no mere tough broad. She is the spirit of vengeance set upon the alleyways and penthouses of the corporate drug culture as a personification of the rage felt by an impotent audience. She is sexy. She is beautiful. She does not take all the awful shit our culture insists upon dumping on the rest of us. When she barrels her car through a dope kingpin’s living room, and empties her shotgun into his belly, the hoots and hollers we expel are a rejection of the nightly news’ banality.
When Quentin Tarantino transformed Elmore Leonard’s Jackie Burke into Jackie Brown, I think a lot of us out there were anticipating a Pulp Fiction celebration to that Godmother of Carnage. While the title might tip the hat to the legend of Pam Grier, the razor blades in afros and the mid-coital assassinations are left behind. Instead what we have is a thoughtful meditation on a mid-life awakening that still manages to showcase the undeniable appeal of Grier as a strong, sexy, powerful human being with complete control of her surroundings and fellow miscreants. She’s not afraid to use a gun, and she completely understands the power of violence, but she also understands that confidence itself can be a weapon against terror.
As the theme from Across 110th Street plays over the opening credits, and Grier’s Jackie drifts down the people mover of LAX, we are introduced to a woman trapped in the dismal retail of air travel. Bouncing from one lame airline to the next, 44 years of escorting the joyous and the adventurous to their destinations has earned Jackie $16,000 a year plus benefits, and an unwanted attachment to wannabe Scarface, Ordell Robbie. It’s a minor criminal arrangement that will bind her to the LAPD as well as the ATF hotshot, Ray Nicolet, who is happy to exploit the stewardess for the inevitable glory in Ordell’s capture. She’s beaten, and simply exhausted by life.
Ordell Robbie, on the other hand, is transitioning from the King of Compton to the King of the World. Replace Tony Montana’s mountain of cocaine with a mountain of machine guns (“The AK-47! Accept No Substitutes!!”), and what you have is that same boisterous, egomaniacal, monstrous tyrant who lords his minimal power over those unlucky enough to be caught in his sphere. Sam Jackson relishes the part, embracing Ordell’s sociopathic villainy by adorning him with an absurd Kung Fu goatee and mad monk mane. Only a true psychotic would proudly parade such cartoonish facial hair though the food court of the Del Amo Mall. Seriously, you’re not going to sling insults at this character after you carelessly bump into him at the Big Kahuna Burger, right?
Quentin Tarantino spends the first third of the film establishing Ordell as a charismatic psychopath. As he schools Louis, his jailbird buddy played to sheepish perfection by Robert De Niro, we fall under his spell of Hong Kong movie references and the regurgitated Guns & Ammo info dump. His cruel dismissal of Bridget Fonda’s surfer girl is cynically comical even as we store away her seething for down-the-road narrative developments. The cold blooded calculation of the Beaumont execution turns as dementedly dark over the rewatches as it was shamefully funny on round one. Chris Tucker may be Costello to Sam Jackson’s Abbott, but Pam Grier’s Jackie Brown will be damned if she’s going to end up playing Ordell’s “Who’s On First” routine.
For Jackie, a night in jail ignites that inner Coffy, and while her bail bondsman is helplessly cultivating an infatuation, she’s formulating the big payback, and ripping off his glove box revolver. Ordell sits in the darkness, looking to let another employee go, but after decades of somnambulance, Jackie awakens into a rage of purpose. Gun against dick, Pam Grier channels all the fury and intention of her Blaxploitation history. Ordell suddenly seems a little less scary, and the audience’s affection begins to shift from villain to heroine.
In fact, as Jackie Brown manipulates the confused jumble of males on the chessboard and positions each pawn to her conquering whim, Ordell is pathetically reduced to a two-bit crook desperately flailing to maintain his bravado. With no woman, friend, or dollar to call his own, the final slug that drops him at Jackie’s feet nearly incites our sympathy. Monster turned fool; for all his well-manicured dread, Ordell Robbie pays the ultimate price for underestimating Pam Grier. Once Coffy is awoken, no man has a chance.
Jackie Brown, seemingly, is the least lauded of the Tarantino genre assaults. The Pam Grier enthusiast who purchased their ticket in 1997 expecting a John Travolta reinvention of that one-chick hit-squad, but left the theater with a rather talky, mindfully paced coming of (2nd) age crime drama was probably scarred by the inevitable Pulp Fiction comparisons. Following up a pop culture behemoth is always bound to disappoint a crowd thirsty for more of the same.
However, looking back at the past 25 years of Quentin Tarantino’s filmography, it’s Jackie Brown that stands out from the rest of the pack. Here is a film starring a middle aged black woman that concerns its narrative with exalting her in the eyes of every other character on screen. In a landscape where female heroes are more often than not, simply badass genderswaps of clichéd male ideals, here is a heroine that dominates through calculation and shear willpower. The film recognizes Pam Grier for the goddess that she is, but also trusts us to accept her warrior status without the sawed-off cocked on the hip. Bring on the Beatrix Kiddos, the Sarah Connors, the Furiosas, and other wannabe Coffys, but we still wait for more champions like Jackie Brown.