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Entries in Foxy Brown [1974] (1)

Wednesday
Jan042012

Foxy Brown (1974)

Who's Exploited Now, Bitch?

I love pop culture, but it doesn't always love me back. Case in point: for years, it told me, very convincingly, that the 1970s were a cheesy decade of ridiculous frivolity, and that black cinema in particular was something to be avoided. From I'm Gonna Git You Sucka to Austin Powers 3 to Black Dynamite, all I've known of the era is big afros, nunchakus, and angry cries of "Jive turkey!". Aside from a midnight viewing of Dolemite in the late 90s--which didn't help--I'd never bothered to delve into blaxploitation cinema until today.

It was probably Jack Hill's name that lured me to Foxy Brown--not only because he helmed another new favorite, Spider Baby, but because I wanted to see if a white, male writer/director tackling a female-centric black action movie would be as big a potential train wreck as it sounds. Far from it, Hill's fable of urban decay and revenge is an eye-opening triumph of genre filmmaking as social commentary.

Pam Grier stars as Foxy Brown, the no-nonsense girlfriend of federal agent Michael Anderson (Terry Carter). Anderson has just emerged from deep cover on a failed narcotics investigation, complete with a new face and identity. He plans a quiet life with Foxy, but her drug-dealing brother, Link (Antonio Fargas) sells his secret to the crime lord Michael almost brought down. Michael is executed by thugs in front of Foxy's home, and she vows to avenge him.

The path to justice, in this case, is paved in sleaze. Foxy must pose as a high-society call-girl in order to infiltrate the organization of Katherine Wall (Kathryn Loder), a powerful fashion magnate who wields her money and influence in service of a global drug cartel. Katherine's staff includes racist hit men and an emotionally distant second-in-command named Steve (Peter Brown). Their wealth and pride leave a wide door for the unassuming Foxy to storm through.

Unlike other female-empowerment films of the decade, such as I Spit on Your Grave and Thriller, Foxy doesn't become a one-person killing machine. She's tough and resourceful, but after being overpowered by goons, shipped off to a ranch, and shot up with heroin to make her a more supple sex slave, Foxy realizes she'll need support in order to win. The film's climax involves one of the coolest, most over-the-top botched drug deals ever, complete with a fully strapped black-power army, castration and villains meeting their end in the blades of a spinning propeller.

The plot I've just described is ridiculous. But Hill and his actors are one hundred percent committed to it, making Foxy Brown a serious film to contend with. Aside from a male stunt man subbing for Grier during a car chase and a screechy, awful supporting actress (no need for names; she's unmistakable), very little about the movie is worthy of ridicule. In fact, beneath the shocking bursts of violence, rampant nudity and surprisingly liberal use of the word "nigger", lies a message of hope, unity and diversity.

Link gives a weird but touching soliloquy early on when Foxy berates him for wasting his life as a pusher: he argues that he doesn't fit any of the molds that white society has established for a legitimate black man, so his only way to make it in the world is through crime. Agree or disagree, he makes a compelling point whose degree of self-awareness feels refreshingly out of place in a movie like this.

Growing up, I thought that blaxploitation was a bad thing; that even though African-Americans were the heroes of a genre whose protagonists reclaimed power from an oppressive, white establishment, there was a racist undercurrent in the way they were portrayed. Whether true or not, Hill's treatment of his characters shows a deep affinity for black culture, in the same vein as his unofficial successor, Quentin Tarantino. Drugs, crime, and violence are prevalent in Foxy Brown, but the hero lives (to borrow a corny ad slogan) above the influence. Foxy does her best to keep her family and community clean, and is written as a classic code hero--reluctant, but up for any challenge when pushed.

In fairness, this film likely wouldn't have been nearly as successful without Grier. This is my first real exposure to her outside of Tarantino's Jackie Brown, and it's a hell of a re-introduction. She's famous for being sexy, but I was incredibly charmed by her alternating warmth and cold-blooded determination. Foxy often finds herself in strange and/or dangerous situations, but Grier's groundedness keeps her from becoming a cartoon character or an action figure. Her showdown with Katherine Hall at the end of the picture is positively delicious, and when Grier delivers her primal shout of the word "bitch", you'll feel it in your bones.

One of my just-drafted New Year's Resolutions is to give blaxploitation a second look. If even half the films are as un-ironically entertaining as Foxy Brown, I'll have to sit pop culture down and find out what other secrets it's been hiding from me.