Robin’s Underrated Gems: Coffy (1973)

It seems that a lot of my columns have had a blaxploitation theme to them lately. I recently did a “Robin’s Underrated Crap” column on the mind-boggingly inept 1977 blaxploitation film, The Guy from Harlem, which was preceded by an “Underrated Gems” column on the recent comedy, Black Dynamite, which did a pitch-perfect job at spoofing those awful blaxploitation flicks from the past. Now it is time for me to go to the other end of the spectrum and finally do a long-overdue column on my personal favourite blaxploitation flick of all time: Coffy. However, while I’m a big fan of the film, I should clarify that no one out there is a bigger fan of Coffy than Quentin Tarantino. In 2002, the British Film Institute had a poll where they asked famous directors to list their picks for the ten greatest films of all time and, of course, a lot of them went with the obvious choices like Citizen Kane, The Godfather and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Well, Quentin Tarantino went completely against the norm and put Coffy at #9 on his list, and I’m sure film snobs from all over the world were calling for his head on a plate. Tarantino’s love for the film became very obvious when he made Jackie Brown. In addition to recycling a lot of the music from Coffy, Tarantino went so far as to change the lead character in Elmore Leonard’s original novel from a blonde white woman to a black woman, just so he could cast Pam Grier in the role. Is Coffy really one of the ten greatest films of all time? Of course not. However, it is a great deal of fun and is also notable for featuring one of cinema’s very first female action stars. And it’s very difficult resist a film whose original tagline was: “They call her Coffy and she’ll cream you!”.

The storyline for Coffy is a pretty simple and straightforward one. When we first meet Coffy (Pam Grier) in the opening scenes in the film, she seems like nothing more than a strung-out junkie who will do anything for a fix until she suddenly pulls out a shotgun and shoots a major drug pusher in the face. It turns out that Coffy actually works as a nurse, and wanted to take revenge on the pusher who got her little sister addicted to smack. Coffy becomes particularly disillusioned with the drug trade after an honest cop friend of hers is badly beaten and left brain damaged for refusing to accept bribes from Vitroni (Allan Arbus), the biggest drug kingpin in the area. She realizes that the corruption has become too widespread, so she decides to go on her own vigilante crusade against drugs and plans to wipe out everyone in power. Since Coffy is drop-dead gorgeous and has some very impressive assets, she is able to use her sexuality as her greatest weapon. She finds out that the best way to infiltrate Vitroni’s organization is to go work as a prostitute for the most prominent pimp in the city, King George (Robert DoQui). Since King George is so blown away by Coffy’s beauty, she has no trouble getting into his inner circle, and eventually, she is able to get close to Vitroni when King George rents her out to him. It should be noted that King George has his own theme song and fits every single conceivable pimp stereotype.

Of course, the bad guys eventually figure out Coffy’s plan and make an attempt to kill her, but she bounces back to enact a sweet form of violent revenge. Like I stated earlier, the storyline for Coffy is pretty simple, but what made this movie stand out at the time was the idea of using a female protagonist in such a story. The director of Coffy was Jack Hill, who already had an extensive resume of B-movies and exploitation pictures under his belt by this point, and would later go on to direct another cult feminist exploitation film, Switchblade Sisters. Hill was under contract to American International Pictures, and since blaxploitation films were becoming hugely popular at the time, AIP was anxious to jump on the bandwagon. They were planning to distribute Cleopatra Jones, which would be the first blaxploitation picture to feature a strong female heroine, but when AIP lost the rights to the film to Warner Bros., they asked Jack Hill to direct his own blaxploitation flick with a female lead. He wound making Coffy, which actually beat Cleopatra Jones into theatres and wound up being a bigger hit. Hill had worked with Pam Grier in a couple of his previous films and decided to cast her as Coffy, and this role would turn her into a screen icon. Pam Grier is considered by many to not just be cinema’s first female blaxploitation star, but cinema’s first female action star, period! Watching Coffy now, it’s apparent that Grier is not a polished actor and that her performance is a little rough around the edges, but her immense charisma, sexuality and screen presence more than make up for that.

I think part of the fun of watching Coffy today is seeing just how un-P.C. it really is. This film takes place in an incredibly sleazy, morally bankrupt world and is not afraid to showcase that. Even though Coffy is a very strong heroine, she does not hold back from degrading herself and having sex with some pretty unsavoury characters in order to achieve her desired goal. Some of the trashier moments in the film include a hilariously gratuitous catfight at a party between Coffy and a group of prostitutes, and the shocking sequence where a black character is lynched by being dragged by the neck by a speeding car. Needless to say, scene a like that would probably NEVER make it into a film today! However, amidst all the sleaze, the film does deliver an effective anti-drug message. Many films from this time period faced criticism for glorifying drug use, but Coffy clearly drives home the point that a drugs are a very bad thing and that the people who supply them are very bad people! It’s very easy to root for Coffy on her vigilante crusade because the villains in this film are SO slimy. Even though Vitroni and King George are wonderfully colourful characters, the movie is pretty much completely stolen by B-movie icon Sid Haig. Haig and Jack Hill collaborated together on several films, and he is an absolute hoot here as an Armenian henchman named Omar. Anyway, while many of the popular blaxploitation films from the 1970s have not held up that well, Coffy is still very entertaining to watch today and I think its most dated elements have only enhanced the film’s charm. While the film was exploitive, low-budget and didn’t contain a storyline that was intended to reinvent the wheel, Coffy actually turned out to be a fairly groundbreaking film in many ways, as it opened a lot of doors for the portrayal of women in cinema and showed that females could make compelling action stars. If you don’t agree, well, then… this is the end of your rotten life, you motherfucking dope pusher!

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