1971’s Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song is widely regarded as having initiated the Blaxploitation genre; although an argument can be made that Shaft, also released in 1971 and in production before the release of Sweet Sweetback, equally contributed. They proved that films featuring African-American characters as the sole protagonists could turn a considerable profit. And their shared message was strong: “I’m getting tired of your shit!” says B.J. Hammer before punching a white man.
In his essay ‘Black Violence as Cinema: From Cheap Thrills to Historical Agonies’ (Violence and American Cinema, AFI Film Readers, 2000), author Ed Guerrero writes, the “long unspoken but strictly observed rules regarding the expression of black violence toward whites” were “beginning to erode under the political pressures of the civil rights movement and the surging black power aspirations of urban blacks.” B.J. Hammer’s single act exemplifies a breaking of the rules.Hammer is one of four essential Blaxploitation titles debuting on Blu-ray from Olive Films. Each represents a distinct period in the early ’70s Blaxploitation genre. When Hammer opened in New York’s Times Square, the rebellious and often replicated aspects of the genre were well established, and the film stands as an archetypal example. By 1973, with the release of Coffy, the genre delved into revisionism, and by 1974, it veered toward camp with Foxy Brown.
Although it wasn’t United Artists’ first foray into Blaxploitation (the studio released Cotton Comes to Harlem in 1970), Hammer was one of their most notable. It introduced Fred Williamson in the role that cemented his nickname (although, that nickname had been with him since his football days). It features a remarkable score by Solomon Burke, who also composed the score for another 1972 film, Cool Breeze. It has its fair share of action, sex, and violence, and it has a disconcerting white villain, Brenner (played by William Smith); a corrupt boxing promoter, Big Sid; and sadistic, out-of-control henchmen.
Boxer and stevedore, Hammer refuses to be on the take from Big Sid. Any boxer who doesn’t play the game Big Sid’s way, of course, gets it. Roughouse, played by Stack Pierce, discovers this in one of the film’s more bloody sequences. He’s crushed between Brenner’s car and an alley wall. Hammer’s determination to make it big without being brought down by Sid (and nefarious inner-city characters) sets in motion fist fights, an impressive car chase, and a boxing match in which Sid and Co. strong-arm Hammer to take a dive.American International Pictures, like it did in the 60s with beach movies and motorcycle movies, was eager to get in on the new inner-city market with low-budget offerings of its own. By 1973, the genre started to get into its revisionist aspects as Warner Bros. and AIP tried to come up with new twists. Both companies were successful with their female-led spins on the genre: Warner Bros. had Cleopatra Jones, and its sequel Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold in 1974, and AIP had Coffy, followed by Foxy Brown in 1974, and Friday Foster in 1975 – each film starring AIP’s stand-out performer from their women in prison films, Pam Grier.
In his 1973 review of the Coffy, Roger Ebert wrote that the film “neatly reverses” the Blaxploitation formula. A key element of the film, and other female-led Blaxploitation films, is that Coffy uses her sexuality to get herself into and out of scrapes with villains. This is done early in the film as she offers two drug dealers the promise of sex, and then turns the tables on them. Grier plays a nurse whose younger sister is hospitalized after developing a drug addiction. Her revenge is quick. She kills the two dealers. One is eradicated in a manner equivalent to the infamous exploding head in David Cronenberg’s Scanners (1981) — I’m led to wonder if this is the first exploding head in film history, as the one in Dawn of the Dead didn’t happen until 1978. (This would make Coffy a minor landmark film in the world of gore.) Unlike Hammer, however, Coffy is more about retaliatory violence than the valorization of it.Characteristically, Coffy is a victim of the male establishment. Her boyfriend, Howard Brunswick (played by Booker Bradshaw), is a politician; a guy working for the betterment of the community. Yet, the truth is he’s a sham. He’s as treacherous as any drug dealer and willing to let Coffy die if it means shutting her up after she finds out about his wrongdoings. His hired goons kidnap Coffy and, again, she’s able to outwit her killers by offering the promise of sex. The film also features one of director Quentin Tarantino’s favorite revenge scenes. In it, Coffy affixes razor blades inside her hair, and when her anticipated catfight starts, with its requisite hair pulling (this is an AIP film after all), Coffy’s foe digs in and the blood flows.
Foxy Brown continues the revisionist sub-trend in Blaxploitation, but with a greater emphasis on camp and violence – which of course makes the film a fan favorite. Foxy Brown was made to meet the expectations of AIP’s marketing, or at least try to. This time around, the heroine’s revenge is set upon those who shot her boyfriend (played by classic Battlestar Galactica’s Terry Carter). This leads Foxy to a corrupt modeling agency, led by the villainous Miss Katherine played with enjoyably evil pomposity by Kathryn Loder. Violence, again, defines the movie, as demonstrated in one particular scene where a villain is castrated — a scene no man could be comfortable watching.While not as campy as Foxy Brown, Friday Foster is an adaptation of a syndicated comic strip – the first to feature a black woman as the lead character. The film has a noticeably greater production value than Coffy and Foxy Brown — which, at least on the surface, lends the impression that AIP spent more money on this production than the prior two films. AIP also added a recognizable supporting cast featuring Ertha Kitt, Scatman Crothers, and Jim Backus. Grier plays a photographer for Glance magazine, who, on New Year’s Eve, is sent to the airport to photograph the arrival of “the black Howard Hughes,” Blake Tarr. The secret, late-night gig turns for the worst, when Friday witnesses an assassination attempt on Tarr and, as a witness, soon becomes a target herself. Detective Colt Hawkins, played by Yaphet Kotto, is assigned to the case. Thwarting an attempt on Friday’s life, Hawkins faces off with the henchman Yarbo, played by Carl Weathers, culminating in a rooftop chase scene that’s quintessential 70’s gauche, and all the more entertaining because it is.
Although Coffy, Foxy Brown and Friday Foster (and Warner Bros.’ Cleopatra Jones films) present a powerful female protagonist, a rarity at the time (and still today for the most part), author Mark A. Reed offers some intriguing opposition to that impression. The films may not be as feminist as they appear. In his book Redefining Black Film (University of California Press, 1993), he identifies four problems: 1) “The films are made to engage male fantasies.” 2) “The male gaze disempowers these women more than their actions empower them.” 3) “There’s little if any female solidarity, mirroring the heterosexist social order of black action films.” And 4), the heroine “defeats men, but she always returns to her man.”As for the violence in these four films, Ed Guerrero puts it into perspective, stating the “violence appears crudely rendered and visually camp or naive compared to today’s examples.” Yes, they include “money shots for the grindhouse audience.” The violence is now somewhat comical.
I can’t help but wonder if the intense cycling of the formula of Blaxploitation films led to the genre’s diminished popularity. Author Callum Waddell, in his book Jack Hill: The Exploitation and Blaxploitation Master, Film by Film (McFarland, 2009), offered an interesting question to Jack Hill (the writer/director of Coffy and Foxy Brown), “Subsequent films were more violent than Coffy, but without social commentary. Did this kill the genre? That it became about violence?” Jack Hill’s answer: “Yes.”Hammer, Coffy, Foxy Brown, and Friday Forster are all now available on region A Blu-Ray via Olive Films