Coffy (Jack Hill, 1973)- It’s easy to be dismissive of Blaxploitation cinema if your only exposure to the genre are the pop culture parodies and most ridiculous examples like Dolemite (which don’t get me wrong, is an absolute blast just not exactly art). However, if you can get past all of the ridiculous fashion, ludicrous dialogue, lovingly over-the-top violence, and funkadelic soundtracks and dig into the movies, it’s a surprisingly rich genre. Many of the great blaxploitation films are straight up great ’70s movies with all of the delightful excess of exploitation movies and pointed politics of counter culture ’70s cinema. Coffy is one of the finest flicks from the era, a snappy revenge action movie with a feminist slant, a killer soundtrack, a sense of the absurd, a little social outrage, and a crowd-pleasing structure designed to elicit grindhouse cheers that have yet to fade. Pam Greir’s star-making feature is just as ludicrously entertaining to dip into these days as it was in 1973 and should be sampled by more than just the usual Blaxploitation cultists. Thankfully the good folks at Arrow have gone and given the classic the Blu-ray it deserves, so there’s never been a better time to dive in.
Pam Grier stars Coffy, a woman on a mission. She’s a nurse who grows sick of the drugs ruining her community after her sister is forced into a rehab clinic. She’s had enough and she’s going to bring it all down by herself. Grier starts seducing drug dealers and bringing them back to her home only to scream out her rage about the issue and murder them dead. At the same time, she also strikes up a relationship with a good cop who she thinks she can trust and a city councilman who she hopes can bring about some positive change in her community. While building bridges with the right side of the law, she keeps burning them down on the wrong side, which pretty much guarantees Grier a whole pile of trouble. It all builds up to a bloodsoaked climax in which only Pam Grier can come out on top. Broken down to the most basic narrative beats like that, Coffy might not sound like much but it truly is one well one hell of a ride with more on it’s mind than initially appears.
One of the major reasons for Coffy’s success is writer/director Jack Hill. He was a contemporary of Francis Ford Coppola at ULCA and both directors graduated from film school into exploitation movies only Hill never made it out. Hill got into movies to be an artist and always found ways to make his assignments feel personal though. He had no particular interest in Blaxploitation before getting hired onto Coffy, but knew exactly how to tackle the genre. Hill came in with a combination of serious intent and ironic detachment. Very much a part of the Los Angeles underground scene at the time, Hill fearlessly dove into a searing portrayal of the vicious racism, vast drug problems, a society-wide exploitation of the era and explored those themes honestly in this genre effort without ever stretching into preaching. The movie has a grit and honesty to it without forgetting its primary goal of entertaining the pants off of the drive-in crowd. Hill also has a bullet’s sense of pacing and infuses all of his action scenes with enough political indignation to make violence righteous. He knows that he’s working in a trashy genre and fully embraces that trash with just the right amount of winking comedy to get away with the cheese. It’s a far better written film than you’d necessarily expect, quite often operating on two separate levels that both capture the tone of the time and mock exploitation excess.
The other major reason for the film’s success is of course Pam Grier. The primary reason Hill took the job was to create a vehicle for Grier whom he’d discovered working on women-in-prison pictures and recognized as a star. By gearing the role to Grier, Hill doubled down the political content of his Blaxploitation picture. Not only was the movie a rallying cry against black oppression, but also a work of female empowerment. Grier is of course sensational. In one scene she’s a seductive starlet, in the next a strong politicized woman, and in the next a violent avenger. The role is all over the place, but Grier nails all of her challenges and you can’t take her eyes off of her. The rest of the cast are decent, but all are blown off the screen by Grier. That is of course except for Sid Haig, Jack Hill’s go-to character actor who pops up in what could have easily been a throwaway role as an Armenian henchman, but ends up being a darkly comedic scene-stealer. Of course, despite all of the glowing praise and over-reading that I’m happy to slather over Coffy, I can’t deny that the movie is ultimately sleazy, violent, sexed-up dirty fun. That’s certainly true and the flick works damn well on that level too. It’s just that if you stop to think about all the filthy fun you’ll have with Coffy for a few consecutive seconds, you’ll realize that there’s actually quite a bit going on beneath the grungy surface. Just enough for this to be one of those rare art/trash films for all to love.
Arrow’s HD trasfer for Coffy is easily one of their best. The cheaply produced B-movie has always looked grainy and grotty on home video, which is part of its appeal. Here the film looks surprisingly vibrant like never before. Colors pop and details run deep. Sure, sometimes those details reveal a particularly cheap set or special effect, but for the most part it gives the movie an unexpected gloss. The flick likely looks better here than it ever did in theaters and it’s nice to see a company giving this sort of prestige treatment to culturally significant ’70s indie. The special feature section is no slouch either. Both Hill and Grier give new interviews about the film with just the right mix of honesty and reverence. There might have been a time when they were mildy embarrassed by this sort of movie, but now they understand the legacy and recall their time on and off the screen in that era with great fondness and the brand of candid honesty that only creeps out on camera decades later. There’s also a 30-minute audio essay by critic Mikel J. Koven on the history of Blaxploitation that’s a little dry, but a great introduction for the unfamiliar. Toss in the downright awesome trailer, the excellent Jack Hill commentary from the MGM DVD, and a booklet with two essays and you’ve got a damn fine Coffy Blu-ray. If you’ve never seen the Jack Hill’s classic before, this is the only way to see it. If you have, than I’ll be disappointed if you didn’t already order this Blu-ray before reaching the end of this review (seriously, if you haven’t bought the disc by this sentence, what the hell are you thinking?).
Note: This is a Region B release from Britain, but with the extras adverse Olive is planning on putting the U.S. Coffy disc later this summer, the Arrow edition is really worth the effort of tracking down.