Retro Review: Foxy Brown (1974.)
Pam Grier stars as a wronged woman out for revenge in a film that epitomized the potential of the blaxploitation genre.
Following Proud Mary‘s attempt to modernize the blaxploitation film, and its failure to deliver any of thrills usually found in the genre, I decided to re-watch one of the classics: Foxy Brown. Exploitation films have come in and out of fashion over the years with directors such as Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez emulating them in films like Pulp Fiction and Grindhouse. Before you can really dive into Foxy Brown as a film, it’s important to look at the exploitation genre, and blaxploitation in particular, in detail.
This genre derives its name from the perception that film makers are “exploiting” hot button cultural trends to gain attention, often by portraying the material in a lurid fashion with plenty of sex and violence. While many of the sub-genres like sexploitation, splatter films, and cannibal films did rely pretty much exclusively nudity and gore for their appeal, other films labeled exploitation flicks would nowadays just be considered niche or genre films. The spaghetti western, the Chambara samurai flick, even monster movies like Night of the Living Dead are all lumped into the exploitation film category. Many of these genres produced cult classics and outright good films. The term exploitation gives a bad name to a lot of films that have real cultural value.
The black exploitation film genre is perhaps one of the most difficult sub-genres to assess critically. The genre was notorious for fetishizing black sexuality, relying on broad stereotypes, and glorifying violence. The term blaxploitation was coined by detractors of the genre who saw it as a destructive influence on black culture, and the push-back film makers got from groups like the NAACP and the National Urban League led to it eventually falling out of favor.
Supporters of the genre point to several positive elements. Blaxploitation films were virtually the only films in which people of color were not just prominent, but got to be the heroes and stars. The genre often had openly feminist and black empowerment themes front and center. Negative stereotypes like pimps, prostitutes and drug pushers were contrasted with positive (though flawed) heroes: Shaft is a righteous black detective fighting a dirty system, Foxy Brown is a pillar of the community who helps get rid of drugs in her neighborhood and seeks to avenge the death of her boyfriend who was a federal narcotics agent. Much like its heroes, the genre was marred by a reliance on sex, violence, and cultural warfare, but the best films in the genre sought to empower instead of exploit black audiences.
Foxy Brown (1974.)
Foxy Brown (Pam Grier) is a well respected icon in her neighborhood, protecting the powerless and opposing the drug trade. Her boyfriend is an undercover narcotics agent who has just undergone radical surgery to alter his appearance after his landmark case was sabotaged by a dirty judge and jury. When a drug syndicate that uses prostitutes to buy off judges and cops learns of his whereabouts, they have him assassinated. This pushes Foxy Brown to take them on by herself in a bloody vendetta outside of the law.
Director Jack Hill was not shy about putting culture and politics at the center of his movie. While Foxy’s brother is a lowlife pusher, he’s propped up by the all-white drug cartel that’s tearing apart the neighborhood. Likewise, the women who work in the prostitution ring are there because the cartel has them strung out and desperate. There are bad actors in the black community, but they can’t ever get clean and free while the white power structure keeps them addicted, criminalized and marginalized.
Choosing to focus on a female protagonist who is sexy but empowered is another strong element of the film. Foxy has “traditional” feminine values, but she owns them and is seldom defined by them. She supports her brother despite him being a shit (enjoyably played by character actor Antonio Fargas) but isn’t the least subservient to him. She’s in a relationship with an undercover agent, but she’s not the woman left on the homefront; she’s every bit an agent for justice without having a badge. Pam Grier sells a heroine who is in charge of herself even though she’s aware that it usually falls to the women in her community to deal with society’s mess.
Not All Black and White.
While the politics are clear, the movie does make distinctions. Not all power structures are bad, just the ones corrupted to keep the poor and minorities down. Law enforcement is positive when it’s shown helping to smash up the cartels, but there’s no sympathy shown for the cops and judges who take bribes to maintain the unfair status quo. While the villains are all white, not all whites are villains, and the same goes for the black population. The whole revenge plot wouldn’t be needed if Foxy’s brother could just stop selling heroin. The Black Panthers end up helping Foxy, but they need to be shown by her that cleaning up the neighborhood isn’t good enough if the cartels can just replace every pusher you beat up and kick out of town. I won’t go so far as to say Foxy Brown is a nuanced film, but it’s not a simple story of black and white.
Superfly vs. Superspy.
The opening sequence, which like most blaxploitation films has a stellar funk soundtrack, shows star Pam Grier in stylish outfits as she brandishes her pearl handled pistol in silhouette. It’s very James Bond, and the whole movie seems to be adapting the tropes of that genre and subverting them. Foxy Brown is the kind of hero you’d get if the Bond girls were allowed to be powerful. She’s smart, sexy, and tough. She owns her sexuality, even when it is literally and forcibly used against her. It works because Pam Grier, while not yet as strong an actress as she would become, is a formidable screen presence.
Grier worked often with Jack Hill in his other, more traditionally lurid exploitation films. Here she gets a chance to be the hero instead of merely the main character. Her delivery of dialogue isn’t the greatest (and neither is the crude script itself!) but Grier’s expressive style and physicality overcome the shortcomings. You could strip out the audio and get all of the emotional impact of her scenes. A tremendous beauty, she easily sells her character’s allure, but she’s just as commanding in the often brutal fight scenes, and Foxy Brown comes alive when Grier lets her justified anger pour forth.
Foxy Brown isn’t what you’d consider a traditionally great film. There are a lot of rough edges and faults, not just in the film’s ethos but in its execution. For all its problems, though, Foxy Brown is a memorable film and one of the strongest to come out of the short-lived blaxploitation era. In lots of genres, it’s more important to compare them to their peers. Bruce Lee only made one really great film, Return of the Dragon, but his body of work is celebrated for being some of the best in his genre. Likewise Clint Eastwood and Sergio Leone only made a couple truly excellent films, but the great majority of them were rightly celebrated as excellent westerns. In the blaxploitation genre, there are just a few films that stood out and showcased how much the genre was capable off. Foxy Brown is one of those films.