Mess or Masterpiece?
Sample critical reaction: "[L]eaves a viewer with the happy thought that [Pam Grier, in the role of the title character] can get back to nursing and away from films like Coffy." --A.H. Weiler, The New York Times
All right, there is something a little dubious about a chauvinistic white guy directing a blaxploitation movie--particularly one in which the merciless busty female protagonist disrobes frequently, jabs her foes with dirty syringes, conceals razor blades within her towering Afro, gets into a hair-pulling catfight, and removes her ex-lover's crotch with a shotgun blast. This did not go unnoticed by critics who, back in 1973, panned director Jack Hill's Coffy, a low-budget action flick starring newcomer Pam Grier. They bristled at the movie's more lurid aspects, if they bothered reviewing it at all (films on the exploitation circuit were often ignored by the mainstream press). Despite this, Coffy went on to become the 12th-highest-grossing picture of that year--remarkable, considering that the flick was relegated to only one or two theaters in even the biggest cities. Coffy usually played at drive-ins or grindhouses in blighted neighborhoods, where it shared the marquee with cheesy kung fu "chop-sockies" and sexploitation flicks like The Candy Snatchers.
Over the years, blaxploitation cheapies have won some hipster/film-geek affection (thank you, Quentin Tarantino), but they haven't really earned any more respect than they got in 1973--Coffy and its ilk are regarded as kitschy, campy curiosities, not great cinema. Coffy doesn't wear classic status easily; it's wildly sadistic, equating vigilantism with empowerment, and ballsy enough to suggest that the woes of the inner city are not all the Man's fault. There are plenty of black folks conspiring to keep other black folks down, the movie argues, as long as the price is right. "Black, brown, or yellow, I'm in it for the green," snarls Coffy's corrupt congressperson beau. Sounds like angry-white-guy rhetoric to me.
But for all its sleaze and cartoon silliness, there's something uplifting about Coffy. For starters, the film minted Grier as both a sex symbol and an action star (albeit briefly) at a time when black women were generally not considered qualified to be either. And, unlike with similar films of the period--paeans to pushing and pimping such as Superfly and The Mack--the audience isn't maneuvered into identifying with a criminal. Coffy's a nurse, albeit a complete badass: She's a one-woman hit squad who goes on a killing spree to wreak vengeance on the lowlifes who got her 11-year-old sister hooked on smack. As she picks off an endless succession of dealers, runners, pimps, hit men, police, and politicos, Coffy realizes that corruption is pervasive and basically insurmountable--which doesn't deter her in the least.
Between all the blasting guns, jiggling flesh, cheesy special effects (when Coffy blows one smack-hawking fat cat away, his "head" disintegrates like a be-wigged melon), Coffy somehow manages to be not just a visceral movie experience but an inspirational one. Our heroine works her outsider status to her advantage. She doesn't succeed despite the fact that she's chronically underestimated, she succeeds because of it. It never once occurs to any of the schmucks she eventually blows away that she poses a threat to them, and because they never saw it coming, they never stood a chance. Grier's hiphugger-clad honey pot takes on an inherently corrupt patriarchal system and beats the odds. Damn. You can't mess with that.