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Coffy or: How (Not) to Compromise for Innovation

Coffy (Jack Hill, 1973)

EssayPart of Issue #15: C O M P R O M I S E

In Jack Hill’s Coffy (1973), the tone is set within the first few minutes: a sex worker, seemingly in need of a fix, lures a crime boss and his drug-pushing associate to their den to exchange  her  services  for  drugs. This sex worker then reveals herself to be the title character (Pam Grier) in disguise; who kills the two men in an act of revenge for the drug addiction of her younger sister. Dealing with the themes of vengeance and compromise, Coffy  was not considered anything special or innovative by critics at the time of its release. However, the film’s foregrounding of an independent and highly capable female protagonist, has lead to a slow but certain re-evaluation as a groundbreaking text in later years.

For examples of Coffy’s innovation, look no further than Grier as its lead character. As an action heroine, she commits acts of non-compromise as she not only takes on a corrupt system, but the patriarchy as well. Billed on the poster as “the Baddest one-chick hit squad that ever hit town!”, Coffy could be considered a feminist work: she takes no half measures as she seduces, fights, and shoots her way to victory and self-assertion. Through these actions, Grier’s Coffy defined the action heroines that came after her. One could argue that the film’s concurrent depiction of women as sex workers, and a significant display of leering female nudity in order to tantalise a (heterosexual) male audience goes against a feminist agenda. Nevertheless, the great difference in the portrayal of the protagonist is that Coffy displays great agency. She uses her sexuality to get what she wants like a classic femme fatale. For a 21st-century audience, it could be seen as a compromise that she uses her body to achieve her objective. However, what was different for the time, is that she is not an accessory to or adversary of a male protagonist and unlike her Noir antecedents, she is not punished for her actions of supposedly ‘leading men astray’.

In case there was any confusion, Coffy’s boyfriend Brunswick, an ambitious local politician, calls her a “‘liberated woman’ who has no time for Latin machismo charm” in reference to Brunswick’s acquaintance Deputy Commissioner Reuben Ramos’s flirtatious comments. Besides avenging her sister, Coffy also avenges her good friend and former lover Carter, who is one of the few good cops on the force. In a short scene, Carter stands up for her when Coffy is bothered by a man who mistakes her for a sex worker. When Carter is severely injured due to a beating he received because he refuses to bend to the drug mafia’s will, Coffy avenges him. In addition to using her body as a means to an end, she is witty and fearless in her action. She fights the women who disrespect her, emasculates her boyfriend who has betrayed her by shooting him in the crotch with a shotgun, and kills criminals to avenge the people she loves.

Despite this display of black female assertion, it is doubtful that writer/director Hill and producer Robert Papazian made Coffy with feminist and black empowerment values in mind. Hill, who was highly influential in the popularisation of the 1970s exploitation genre, had worked with Grier before in female-centred exploitation films The Big Doll House (1971) and The Big Bird Cage (1972). Wanting to further milk the then-current trend, he made clever use of the black political consciousness of the time by proposing the idea of showcasing a competent female protagonist that would strongly appeal to the (straight) male gaze.Stephane Dunn (2008): “Baad Bitches” and Sassy Supermamas: Black Power Action Films Whether the decision to cast Grier in the lead was out of expedience or not, this choice has given new form to the black female protagonist who can take on the system and win like any man. Furthermore, Coffy’s display of female black empowerment can be seen as a sign of the times. Coffy is one of the many African American-centred films of the 1970s that would later be categorised as blaxploitation. What these films have in common is that through the glorification of violence, sex and virility, the black protagonist is portrayed as rebellious and powerful as they take on the white system and win. Cotton comes to Harlem (Ossie Davis,1970) and Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (Melvin van Peebles, 1971) are considered the first blaxploitation films. Both films were made by black filmmakers, feature a predominantly black cast, and are accompanied by a funk and soul film score. Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song in particular can be seen as a response to the political and social environment of black Americans at the time. In addition, it was also an expression of a desire to break the mould of black tameness represented by Sidney Poitier. Poitier was one of the few black film stars at the time who portrayed a respectable, yet safe white-appropriate version of blackness. As not to trigger the racial fear of Jim Crow-era America, many of Poitier’s roles were desexualised characters. Furthermore, his characters are often depicted as the perfect African-American, an unattainable role model, keen to earn the white man’s respect; always sympathetic and kind even to those who disrespect him. Although Poitier was a true pioneer and his influence cannot be underestimated, Van Peebles’ Sweetback is everything Poitier’s characters are not; violent, highly sexual and not at all interested in gaining the white man’s approval. Rather than aiming to attain white respectability, it was considered far more satisfying for black audiences to vilify the white man and beat him at his game. Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song‘s message was so profound that the Black Panther Party leadership considered it required viewing for party members.

As the first African-American films of the 1970s were very popular with black audiences, the Hollywood mainstream, which was in crisis at the time, realised the value of the black dollar. White families had left the inner cities for the suburbs and the cinemas in these inner cities needed to attract new audiences to survive. The Hollywood establishment started to produce black-centred films that were to appeal to a wide audience. As white filmmakers started to produce African-American-centred films, Van Peebles’ initial message of black defiance and non-compromise was watered down considerably in favour of producing money-making vehicles on the cheap. Coffy can be considered a product of this compromise.

At the same time, compromise is also a theme in the film. Brunswick is running for Congress and in a speech to start off his campaign, he equates the narcotics trade and its effects on the community with the white supremacist power structure. However, at the end of the film Coffy and the audience learn that Brunswick is in bed with the drug mafia and is part of the corruption he publicly condemns. Brunswick argues that compromise is needed to gain the necessary power to improve circumstances for his people, which might well be every career politician’s argument. He says: “One needs to do a few little wrong things to do one big right thing.” Coffy does not accept this and when she discovers he has also compromised their relationship, she punishes him for it.

Coffy made Grier the first female action film star of American cinema. She broke barriers for black actresses and paved the way for future action heroines. The film could be considered a reflection of the women’s empowerment movement of the 1970s in which there was a strong demand for independence, a want to protect families and communities, and a rejection of victimisation and patriarchal dominance.Yvonne D. Simms (2006): Women of Blaxploitation: How the Black Action Film Heroine Changed American Popular Culture Although audiences had seen women as action figures or avengers before, Coffy didn’t fulfil the role of a romantic attachment to a male co-lead like Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde (1967). Nor did Coffy avenge herself, but rather she takes revenge for others while serving her community in the process by ridding it of drug dealers.

Besides being groundbreaking in regard to female representation, blaxploitation in general and Coffy in particular, have changed audiences’ relationship with film scores. Funk and soul music was never included in film soundtracks before the 1970s. Both music genres originate from traditional African-American music genres gospel, and rhythm and blues, with funk having a strong focus on the baseline and being particularly popular in the 1970s. Not only did these film scores add swagger to the narrative, many soundtracks also generated big hits and great success for their composers. Fairly early in his career, lauded musician and music producer Roy Ayers composed Coffy‘s highly regarded film score. Several tracks were included in Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown (1997) as an ode to the blaxploitation genre and especially to Pam Grier, who stars in the film, as an action heroine and black pioneer of American cinema.

The initial message and mission of African-American-centred film as expressed in Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song was quickly hijacked by the Hollywood establishment to produce cheap thrills for a wide audience for monetary gain. The popularity of films labelled as blaxploitation lasted less than a decade. Nevertheless, the soul, swagger and sense of non-compromise of these films continue to live on. It has inspired various black filmmakers and created space for a wider variety of stories about the black experience. Like many other blaxploitation flicks, Coffy attracted criticism for its display of violence and nudity, and the characterisation of black people as pimps and sex workers. Nevertheless, Coffy set the tone for woman protagonists and action heroines and gave an example of how a black woman can take on the patriarchal system single-handedly and beat it. Unintentionally or not, Coffy has led to great innovation. It had a profound cultural impact and filmmakers, critics, and scholars continue to draw from its rich legacy.