Friday, March 7, 2014

Coffy (1973): Saving the Neighborhood is Woman's Work

Coffy (1973)
dir: Jack Hill

While the white cinema of the 1970s largely pitted itself against strong female characters and feminism, the blaxploitation genre was starting to give women more opportunity to be strong, forceful characters involved in saving their community. Pam Grier became one of the icons of female power through her work as the leading lady in movies such as Foxy Brown, Friday Foster, and Black Mama, White Mama.

Coffy, however, was her first dive as the black hero of the black community, setting her up against a white power structure intent on enslaving the black community through the use of drugs. As the titular hero, Coffy is a strong female nurse whose little sister got hooked on smack, and ended up insane in the hospital and seemingly permanently damaged. In order to exact revenge for her sister, as well as an attempt to stop the system keeping the black community down, Coffy fights and kills her way up the chain, and even ties it to city councilmen.

Coffy was written and directed by Jack Hill, a white man working in the exploitation idiom. With Coffy, Hill made his first step into the blaxploitation genre which had already had strong footholds in the culture by 1973. Hill was also attempting to make a socially conscious exploitation film which wasn't just about fighting power structures for T&A and violence.

Looking at the other exploitation films that came out around this time, Coffy was downright revolutionary and progressive in terms of its attitude toward women. Black women, mainly. The black women in the movie are largely women in charge or with power. Obviously, there's Coffy. But, an early confrontation with a prostitute shows the prostitute now being pimped out by a black woman named Harriet.

On the other hand, white women are shown as being generally complacent in their own prostitution, and even territorial about their pimps and business. Almost all of the men, black or white, are shown to be corrupt figures whether they're straight our gangsters, or politicians and cops. Only one cop escapes the sour bitterness of white power corruption, and that's Carter, a cop who gets badly beaten early in the film when he tries to expose his partner as being corrupt. Of course, there are minor non-speaking characters that populate the sides of the film, suggesting that not everybody is corrupt.The doctors and nurses in the hospital, for instance, are men and women who are trying to suffer their way through doing good work.

Other, more articulate and better versed articles, outline the film's feminism, and the problems that it creates through its cat fights and brutalizing of female prostitutes. Even the earlier mentioned white prostitute who helps Coffy is beaten first by Coffy then by her pimp, and Coffy shows no remorse because the prostitute had a chance to get clean and didn't take it.

What bringing Coffy into this week's discussion does do is show that not all movies were nearly as troubling towards women's lib, and some people were listening. Unfortunately, as feminism got stronger, for awhile, so did the cinematic actions taken against feminism. Then, the men started perverting the female power struggle to make women the villains. In modern times, finding a strong female role in genre films is still tough, and mainly delegated to group ensemble pieces, or Angelina Jolie films. Even Michelle Rodriguez gets thrown into the ensemble picture category far too often for her own good.

If you're looking for a strong female action heroine who doesn't fade away into a group ensemble, your choices are still quite limited. However, Coffy is still one of the more stylish films from the exploitation genre that actually may fill your needs. Sure, it's problematic, and there may be a few too many ripping off of women's tops in the cat fights (didn't I say it was problematic?), but it isn't rape-infested, and it makes some compelling points about the invasion of drugs into the black community (and I'm not talking about the white power structure that Hill claims is behind it all).

Required Viewing.

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