At their best, Blaxploitation movies are righteous revenge fantasies; at their worst they glorify stereotypes. Coffy (1973) contains elements of both. In a genre that, especially in its beginning, rarely had time for women as more than sexual objects, it has a woman as its hero. There’s no doubt that she’s very much a sexual object as well, but she’s in control of her sexual, political and physical destiny, which makes her, sadly, an anomaly not just in Blaxploitation but in the history of movies as well.
The movie was the announcement of Pam Grier as the baddest lady of the ’70s. Grier had been working for a while by the time Coffy came around but mostly in supporting roles as floozies and prostitutes. As Coffy she became Superwoman, a nurse who saves lives during the day and takes them during the night, avenging her drug-addicted siblings by taking down the entire dope trade. Her determination is total. “What would you do?” her cop friend asks her. “Kill all of them?” “Why not?” she replies.
There’s an indication that the movie knows it was flipping the genre on its head with its female hero. When we first meet Coffy she appears to be a tweaking junkie coming on to a dealer to get a fix, a common enough sight for women in these films. The dealer thinks he can trade drugs for sex and they go back to his place where she acts willing until she pulls out a sawed-off shotgun and blows his head off. “It was easy for him because he really didn’t believe it was coming,” she tells the dealer’s terrified associate, “but it ain’t gonna be easy for you, because you better believe it’s coming!” And the problem with these poor drug dealers, pimps, crooked cops, crooked politicians and mafia bosses who stand in Coffy’s way is that they never do.
Much of Blaxploitation is about making the Man aware of the anger, the defiance and certainly the danger of the put–upon black community. “Watch Out,” a title card warns at the end of the seminal Blaxploitation film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971), “A Baad Asssss Nigger Is Coming Back To Collect Some Dues.” The purpose of the movement was partially to alert white audiences about the unrest and dissatisfaction among African–Americans. When the hero is a woman this concept takes on another wrinkle. Instead of simply fighting against 300-plus years of racial oppression, Coffy is also bucking an ageless system of gender disenfranchisement. Everywhere she goes, Coffy is underestimated despite her obvious competence and resources. No one suspects that the unassuming nurse had anything to do with the two early murders she committed; even the cop who is investigating them seems unsuspicious that Coffy knows so much about the case. When her attempt to kill a mob boss is interrupted, it is assumed that she is working at the behest of a man, not acting on her own.
Sweet Sweetback and other male heroes of the genre use their sexual prowess as a weapon or shield, as does the voluptuous Coffy, but she’s really using the chauvinistic assumption that she is always game for sex against her aggressors. She seduces to have her captors or targets lower their guard and then she strikes. The movie can hardly be taken seriously by the way these men lose all sense of anything at the mere suggestion that they might be able to bed Coffy (being Pam Grier, however, this malaise is understandable). When one can keep his cool around her, like her duplicitous boyfriend Brunswick (Booker Bradshaw), a corrupt politician who betrays Coffy and his race by being in the pocket of the white power brokers, he makes the fatal error of trying to charm her away from her mission (and cheating on her with a white woman). “All you have to know, baby, is that I’m your man,” Brunswick tells her. “I’m going to take care of you and I’m going to steer you straight.” She fires a shotgun at his groin. She can take care of herself.
That message is slightly undercut by elements of the script and the filmmaking. It’s true, Coffy never receives any help from anyone, male or female, but the camera, under Jack Hill’s direction, can’t help but make an object out of Grier’s spectacular body. Though she is able to rise above such indignity by her storyline, that luxury isn’t afforded the other women in the movie. There’s a fight at a party among a ring of prostitutes that Coffy has infiltrated that is a lot of campy fun but it‘s inappropriate just the same. A hooker is jealous of the attention Coffy, as the new recruit, is getting from King George (Robert DoQui), the pimp. She spills wine on Coffy’s dress. Coffy responds by dumping a salad on the offender and starting a brawl in which the women seem to succeed only in ripping each other’s dresses off. In a story about female empowerment, this sequence underwhelms.
Yet, stylistically, the female fight fits nicely into the movie’s overall approach as an over-the-top revenge fantasy (who hasn’t been wronged at a public event and desired retribution?). Further, every rung on Coffy’s rancorous ladder is a type, from the barbaric sexual deviants to the smarmy, arrogant playboys. Coffy is lashing out at all the snares that women deal with every day. This broad generalization helps make it more palatable that they are also the same unsavory pimps, hustlers and thugs that far too many black men found themselves cast as at the time, but not completely acceptable. Still, Coffyhas the genre’s admirable righteous rage and energetic style, and at its center a remarkable performance from a baad asssss woman coming to collect some dues.