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Women in Blaxploitation

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"BLAX CHIX" 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?

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 hooked.

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 explain.

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 saw Cinderella.

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 the story.

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 a man.


© Copyright 1999
Shelly Eversley
University of Washington
English Department

Shelly would like to thank her research assistant,
Leevin Camacho, 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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