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Entries in Coffy [1973] (1)

Thursday
Jun112015

Coffy (1973)

No Cream, No Sugar

When reviewing Foxy Brown a few years ago, I admitted to being nescient regarding blaxploitation films. Writer/director Jack Hill's spirited, goofy action movie had more on its mind than I'd bargained for, and my quest to explore the genre began. It also ended: sidetracked, as is often the case, by a seemingly incessant tidal wave of new and momentary interests. With Olive Films' release of Foxy Brown and its predecessor, Coffy, on blu-ray this week, I had the opportunity to revisit a gem and discover an even brighter one--along with new dimensions to Hill's work that knocked me for a loop.

After watching Coffy for the first time on Monday, I discovered that Foxy Brown fit nicely into one of my favorite categories of cinematic fascination: the requel. Like Evil Dead 2 and, more recently, Mad Max: Fury Road, the film exaggerates the most successful elements from a wildly, unexpectedly popular first outing to create something familiar yet more accessible to a broader audience. Unlike those other movies, I found that I actually prefer the original--and I love Foxy Brown. At least I thought I did, before watching Coffy.

Having written previously about Foxy Brown, there's little point discussing Coffy's plot in depth: Pam Grier plays the titular tough-as-nails heroine who infiltrates a high-class ring of sex workers in order to bring down the powerful crime boss poisoning her community with drugs and crime. There are a few key differences here:

  • Coffy's sister gets hooked on drugs. Foxy Brown's brother gets hooked on drugs.
  • Coffy's best friend, an honest cop, is murdered. Foxy Brown's boyfriend, an honest cop, is murdered.
  • In the climax, Coffy blows the villain's balls off with a shotgun. Foxy Brown looks on as a foe gets his manhood filleted by the world's nastiest knife.

For the most part, Foxy Brown is a just a flashier, more stylish re-arranging of furniture. The greatest difference between the two movies--the element that gives Coffy the advantage as both an entertaining and important film--is the downright grim mood Hill sets in building his protagonist's world. There's some unintentionally funny stuff here, particularly in a few questionably acted, jive-heavy supporting roles. But Grier brings Coffy to tragic life as a passionate, intelligent woman whose belief in men, the societal power structure, and even the integrity of those purporting to support racial equality is betrayed at every turn. By film's end, she's a true loner, an icon of empowerment whose strength has been forged in a bloody blaze of corpses and lies. She's Mad Max.

Coffy's quest for justice set me on edge. From the character's unflinching coldness in dispatching a pimp early on, to her secreting razors in her afro prior to an awesome cat fight, Hill undercuts the genre's inherent titillation with a nasty streak that's just too ghoulish to laugh at. Of course, nearly every woman who appears on screen is guaranteed to go topless at some point, but Hill alternates between nudity's sexual charge and its inherent indication of vulnerability, giving every instance of exposed flesh the opposite intended effect--essentially re-directing the exploitation back onto the audience.

Leave it to Hill to perfectly balance two opposing genres. In Spider Baby (which, like Coffy and Foxy Brown, also stars long-time collaborator Sid Haig), he delivered a startling horror-movie take on The Addams Family. In Coffy, he engages the super-spy adventure in a street fight, complete with fireplace safes; shifty, eye-patch-wearing henchmen; and gaudily dressed, string-pulling villains. But there's no winking here, no artificial cheese. Hill saves all that for the sequel, which, though still earnest in its own way, is just plain goofy by comparison.

Coffy also holds up as a solid visual work. Like other forty-plus-year-old restorations, such as The Shining and The Day The Earth Stood Still, Hill's film benefits from the high-def treatment. Some might be inclined to write off anything shot after 1990 as cheap, unworthy distractions. But with Coffy's vibrant, scratch-free restoration, the work of cinematographer Paul Lohmann (who went on to shoot Nashville and Mommie Dearest--not too shabby) really leaps off the screen. Hill's editor, Chuck McClelland, directed a lot of TV, and his quick, cut-to-the-point choices here reflect that sensibility. Fashion and slang aside, Coffy has a distinctly contemporary momentum that I would, frankly, put up against many of today's disposable thrillers.

I might not have caught up with Coffy had it not been for this newly released edition (and, no, this isn't a commercial). There's a lot to love here, and a lot to keep in mind when considering what passes for action movies these days. Like Jack Horner in Boogie Nights, Jack Hill used a widely viewed but under-appreciated platform to tell original and important stories. Strip away the boobs, blades, and bell-bottoms, and you're left with a smart, progressive slice of social commentary that just happens to kick a lot of ass.