Women in Blaxploitation
By Shelly Eversley
If Gordon Park's Shaft
is best known as the "private dick that's a sex machine for all the chicks,"
and Gordon Parks, Jr.'s Superfly is "super fine" and "super bad," then
how do we know blaxploitation's women?-end-
The question suggests obvious answers, but as with the entire genre known
as blaxploitation, nothing is as simple as it seems. While Coffy,
Foxy Brown (Pam Grier) and Cleopatra
Jones (Tamara Dobson) are viewed as sexy chicks out for revenge,
most audiences are willing to accept Sweetback (Melvin Van Peebles), Priest
(Ron O'Neal), and Shaft's
(Richard Roundtree) complexity. The male action heroes find themselves
caught between their personal and political needs and the pressure to
sell out to "The Man." Their conflict is at once particular and universal-their
victories represent individual triumph and the progressive potential of
an entire race.
Gordon Parks describes his project as a "picture people go to see because
they want to see the black guy winning." It was a big deal. In 1971 Shaft
was the first Hollywood film directed by an African American. In the movie,
the hero averts a race war. Produced for $1.2 million, it grossed over
$12 million in one year and it single-handedly rescued MGM from financial
ruin. The story and the profit continued-Superfly (1972) was produced
for less than $500,00 and made over $1 million in its first week. In its
first two months, the film grossed over $11 million.
In many ways Sweet Sweet Back's Baadasssss Song (1971), Shaft,
and Superfly pimped a fantasy of ghetto life: pushers, soul music, drugs,
sex, corrupt cops, and outrageous fashion. But the sex scenes, soundtracks,
and slick clothes seemed to serve a greater purpose. As outlaws, blaxploitation's
men fucked and they fought for the people's liberation from "The Man."
Some critics consider director Jack Hill's Coffy
(1973) and Foxy Brown (1974) as "among the best blaxploitation films."
But, did Pam Grier's characters have to get fucked so often in order to
rate among the best? In Coffy,
Grier plays a nurse whose sister is strung out on smack. She decides to
go undercover as a smack "ho" and annihilate the dealer who gets her sister
Grier's tits are everywhere. Of course, the dealer gets to cop a feel
before she blows his head off. You know the story, classic pornography
defines it. The nice nurse, all dressed in white gets so caught up in
revenge she loses her nurse sensibilities and becomes "a bitch with a
problem." Violence, and there's lots of it, is secondary. Coffy's
sex appeal is what matters. In fact, sex is her talent. The only way she
can get close to her enemy/victim is to fuck him or, almost fuck him,
before she does him for good.
One awestruck viewer noted Grier's bare breasts and exclaimed, "those
titties are real." Of course they are, that's how we know she's a woman.
A film critic praised Coffy
saying, "I believed her." I asked him what that meant, but he couldn't
Cultural critics talk about the power of repetition. Their argument says
that if a story is repeated often enough, audiences recognize it and are
willing to accept its credibility. For example, in the hit movie Pretty
Woman (1990), millions of viewers didn't see a hooker who got lucky, they
Like Sweetback, Shaft, and
Superfly's outlaw formula, Foxy Brown continues the porno story. This
time Grier's character's good cop boyfriend is murdered. She slips into
her whore persona to avenge his death. She gets kidnapped and raped (viewers
get to watch), and when she finally breaks free, she castrates the dealer.
In a demonstration of her superior femininity, she presents the vital
body part to "The Man's" girlfriend.
When asked what role Black women should have in 1970s civil rights movements,
Stokely Carmichael famously answered, "prone." To be prone is to be like
Coffy and Foxy who must first
lay down in order to win. Yes, Coffy
and Foxy Brown must be "among the best blaxploitation films." We recognize
It's no wonder that for many, director Jack Starrett's Cleopatra
Jones wasn't real enough. Maybe it's because audiences don't see
Tamara Dobson's naked breasts. She doesn't even go undercover as a hooker.
Instead, she's a secret agent, James Bond's American colleague. Perhaps
her car, her clothes, and her international authority were too much for
one woman. After all, the story isn't one we usually assign to chicks.
To be fair, the biggest criticism about the film is that the fight scenes
are unbelievable. Unlike Coffy's
catfights that result in lots of half-naked women, Cleo
kicks ass with kung-fu skill. In the airport, she spots an ambush and
destroys her opponents without breaking a nail. Like Richard Roundtree,
Tamara Dobson was a model. But unlike Roundtree, Dobson's good looks and
fashion sense are incompatible with her character.
Visually, Cleo's fights should be
more believable than say, Superfly's Priest. In Cleopatra
Jones, the scenes are fast and furious the camera mimics
the speed of a real-life fight. Her kicks and her punches seem to land
on her target. Ironically, when Priest battles the corrupt cops, the scene
proceeds in slow motion. Filmmakers employ slow motion as a technique
that emphasizes the unreality of the scene. Even though real-life doesn't
move that slowly, few if any question Superfly's physical prowess-he's
University of Washington
like to thank her research assistant,
for his help on this essay.
We would like to thank
Shelly Eversey (and Leevin)
for all the efforts and falettin us publish
this essay here...
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