Jack Hill was writer and director of some of the most notable blaxploitation to come out of the 1970s. Before that, he worked on horror films and women-in-prison sexploitation, but he really hit on something with 1972’s Coffy. Working with Pam Grier, he crafted a film around a powerful black woman attempting to infiltrate a city’s seedy drug kingpin, in the process uncovering a huge cover-up that fingers white male corruption in government. It came at a time when many white people were uncomfortable with Hill’s politics, with his placement of black people in a status of power with the white people generally tending to end up evil. It also made some great points that, unfortunately, remain the same today.
Coffy is a blaxploitation film first and foremost, though, and Hill never skimps on delivering what one would expect from such a subgenre. Pam Grier is the titular Coffy Coffin, a nurse working in a busy hospital with a huge burden on her shoulders. When Coffy begins, she’s in the midst of taking down a couple of drug dealers; first, she pretends she’ll do anything for another dope fix, allowing her admittedly pendulous breasts to escape from their moorings in a promise of sexual favors, then pulling out a shotgun to blow the dealer’s head off. It is Hill signifying that Coffy, despite her apprehensions about violence, is willing to go the distance to get what she wants.
What she wants is revenge against the people that hooked her younger sister on heroin and nearly killed her. Hill delivers this in a couple of longer scenes early on in Coffy, making sure that the audience has at least a semblance of the reasoning behind Coffy’s anger. Hill’s explicitness works here because Coffy’s sister is really just the beginning of a longer journey for Coffy, one that will take her even further down the line of pimps and drug dealers.
While Coffy punctuates the need for Coffy’s interference in the drug trade, it also brings up some interesting themes. Coffy’s battle against drug dealers can’t stop at just the people selling the dope, her police officer love interest Carter (William Elliott) explains; there’s a process stemming back to the white people in power, and that’s not something that she can fix by killing a few bad guys on the streets.
But Coffy is more successful than other blaxploitation films with similar themes because it doesn’t rely on Coffy’s sister as the narrative arc. She is the reason Coffy becomes involved with the drug trade in the first place, but it is Carter’s severe beating at the hands of (white) attackers that causes her to set out to find and murder Arturo Vitroni (Allan Arbus). With this storyline, Hill is able to get in the three traits that make this such a success: the boobs, the suspense, and the white corruption.
First, the boobs: Pam Grier gets a lot of mileage out of her enormous breasts, but Hill doesn’t stop there. In true exploitation fashion, he manages to milk a side story about King George the pimp for all of its buxom glory, even getting in a girl fight with a few tops being clawed open in the process. Sex is an important theme in Coffy, and Coffy often uses it to her advantage; it’s an empowerment for her because she knows the kind of devastation her mammaries have on the opposite sex.
At the same time, the suspense is palpable. Hill often allows scenes to play out for quite a while, the dialogue increasing in intensity. To some, these will be somewhat interminable; despite its action, much of Coffy is doled out in slow fashion as Coffy infiltrates the drug kingpin. Still, Hill takes these moments to add a lot of exposition, either to describe Coffy and her relationship with the new Congressman Howard (Booker Bradshaw) or to wax philosophical about the power structure in city life.
Towards the end, there are quite a few inventive scenes to alleviate the lengthy dialogue scenes. One in particular is an explicit depiction of King George being lynched at the hands of Omar (Sid Haig), where he nooses him to the back of a car and then drives through city streets. The twists continue when Howard’s real allegiances put him in the pockets of corrupt white officials.
Here, Hill develops a grandiose moral. There will always be people who can be bought, whether they be white or black. It’s not up to any one person to stop it by refusing. Hill crafts a reminder of how difficult it is to siphon out criminal activity: if one person declines, those in power will find someone else who will do it. Coffy doesn’t offer an explanation or any answers on how to snuff out drug dealing and crime; it simply identifies, in this scenario, a woman who has come to the breaking point where she’s willing to do anything to at least make a dent in the bad guys’ scheme.
It amounts to a film that has great pathos while adhering to blaxploitation’s main ideas, except in this instance Hill creates a film that is critical of almost all of humanity. Coffy was an inspiration to many later movies, but it also works outside of that genre because of its statements. Whether one enjoys the taste of Coffy or not, it’s hard to discount the message about violence that it delivers.
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