Starring: Pam Grier, Sid Haig, Allan Arbus
Director: Jack Hill
They don’t come any more iconic than this. That funky Roy Ayers soundtrack, and long-legged Pam Grier strutting her stuff as a mild-mannered nurse who pays back the local dope pushers for getting her little sister hooked on drugs by shooting one of them in the afro with a sawn-off shotgun. And that’s only for starters, as her thirst for vengeance sees her going undercover as a exotic Jamaican hooker and getting up close and personal with various garish characters, including Sid Haig’s leering goon Omar, Allan Arbus’ jovial, sexually twisted mafia boss and Robert DuQui’s King George, a drug dealer who affects a regal demeanour by dressing up in jumpsuits and a cape.
It’s these character actors who add the grace notes to writer/director Jack Hill’s rough-hewn revenge story. For the most part, Coffy (1973) focuses on ticking off a checklist of exploitation must-haves – noisy girl fights, torture, nudity, plus more ripped bodices than you get in a hundred Mills and Boons. Concentrating on the sex and violence, it’s less didactic and more down and dirty than Hill and Grier’s follow-up, Foxy Brown – the only rhetoric about black empowerment you hear in the entire movie is put into the mouth of a councilman who disgraces himself by getting into bed with the mob. For all that, or perhaps because of it, you can feel a raw edge of racial tension underneath the film’s lurid scenarios, and – much as for Coffy herself when she takes on Omar and the rest – it’s the anger that keeps it alive.7/10
Some sporadic grain in a few isolated scenes, noticeably in the hospital where Coffy works and the go-go bar where she meets the councilman, but otherwise this is a very clean, attractive transfer. The opening nightclub sequence has vivid colours and a strong sense of depth, there’s a lovely crispness and nuanced grey-blue tones to the first shadowy glimpse of Coffy in the back seat of the Crysler, and later on King George’s mustard cape and jumpsuit look just fine. 8/10
19-min interview with Jack Hill, in which the director reveals that they used a sheet of Plexiglass to protect the stuntman from the shotgun blast in the opening action scene, and that he originally wanted Foxy Brown to be a sequel to Coffy called ‘Burn, Coffy, Burn’. ~ 17-min interview with Pam Grier, who talks, among other things, about how she was raised with guns during her rural upbringing, and how her grandma used to go around with a pistol in her apron. ~ An excellent 19-min video essay on blaxploitation by Mikel J. Koven – this thoughtful and incisive piece puts the genre in context, bemoans the persistence of black stereotypes and pays particular tribute to the films of Melvin Van Peebles (father of Mario), whose commercial success paved the way for other black filmmakers. ~ Jack Hill also provides an audio commentary, explaining Pam Grier’s role in developing the script and coming up with business such as the razor blade hidden in the afro, and making trenchant comments about the bigotry of the mid-’70s: “Even some of the reviewers were racist.” 8/10