A charismatic and cool-headed African-American goddess using her wits, her fists and a buttload of guns to fight against “the man” as old-school R&B is blaring in the background: This didn’t begin with Proud Mary, the Taraji P. Henson-starring blaxploitation (at the very least, in spirit) throwback that culls its (marketing) style and aesthetic from American International Pictures’ impressively large catalogue of go-for-broke B-movies.
In fact such films were a dime-a-dozen operation during the early ’70s, when a look at female-led blaxploitation film rarely turned down any sleazy opportunity to expose their cast members’ flesh while pumping gratuitous sex,squarely communicated via the male gaze, into every frame. Yet, the same female protagonists were empowered and confident, fearlessly fighting back against any evil that plagued their race and gender.
We’re talking revenge fantasies meant to give some form of emotional release to the powerless, almost always following the same plot structure: The protagonist’s relative or lover is killed by drug dealers or racist cops, propelling her to kill everyone involved with the heinous act, until she gets to the big boss, who she disposes of equally effortlessly. The episodic structure of these films follows a kind of video game logic at least a decade before that was even a thing.
How does Proud Mary fall into the subgenre? Here are the 5 best—or at least most entertaining—female-led blaxploitation films to watch to compare:
Coffy (1973) and Foxy Brown (1974)
Director: Jack Hill
These Pam Grier classics share the same spot mainly because they’re pretty much interchangeable. In fact, Foxy Brown was supposed to be a direct sequel to Coffy before Roger Corman’s American International Pictures, which produced a considerable majority of blaxploitation films (and most of the flicks on this list), decided that the two films should be “different.” Hence, in Coffy, we watch a hot nurse going undercover as a prostitute to bring down the drug cartel that destroyed her community and killed her sister, while Foxy Brown is about a hot person who is not a nurse who goes undercover as a prostitute to bring down the drug cartel that destroyed her community and killed her boyfriend. Regardless of negligible plot differences, it’s downright impossible to deny Grier’s effortless charm and presence. Every single gaudy one-liner lands like a swift kick to her enemies’ groins, Grier always owning the screen with a commanding blend of unwavering self-confidence and empathy. There’s a reason Grier’s is the first name that will come to anyone’s mind when female-led blaxploitation films are mentioned.
Cleopatra Jones (1973)
Director: Jack Starrett
Blaxploitation takes on James Bond in this quite silly, but never dull, blast of a genre mash-up. As opposed to the other heroes on this list, who begin their story as regular people pushed to the limit to become ruthless vigilantes, Tamara Dobson’s Cleopatra Jones is already a slick and fearless secret agent when the film begins with a laughably cheap attempt at a Bond-style action set piece on foreign soil.
Cleopatra Jones’ grand intentions might not match its obviously meager budget, but the film is still a technical step up from the standard super-cheap blaxploitation counterparts. Produced by Warner Bros with at least enough cash to create some fairly impressive action scenes—including a long midpoint car chase—the film offers up Dobson’s take on Cleopatra as that of a smooth operator who’s calm and collected during even the tensest times, as opposed to the typical blaxploitation protagonist’s trademark anger and righteous indignation. Jones’ inner conflict about working for “the man” while also caring about her community is a source of compelling character drama, while Shelley Winters, one of the most distinguished actresses of Hollywood’s golden age chewing scenery as the drug kingpin Mommy, is the delightful cherry on top.
TNT Jackson (1974)
Director: Cirio Santiago
OG martial arts movies imported directly from Asia were very popular in African American markets in the ’70s, so it was only a matter of time before blaxploitation mixed some kung fu flavor into its formula. As far as martial arts/blaxploitation icons are concerned, the go-to name will always be Jim Kelly, but what about a female counterpart? Jeannie Bell gave that a shot with TNT Jackson as the title character, a no-nonsense kung fu master who travels to Hong Kong to avenge her brother’s killer. Bell is certainly beautiful, and her athletic prowess and martial arts skills are undeniable, but her lifeless acting and line reading really drags this already super low-budget production down. Instead of a determined and passionate deliverer of vengeance, Bell’s Jackson comes across more as an awkward tourist who’s merely asking for directions. As impressive as the film can be when Bell’s too busy kicking ass to say anything, the blandness of everything that surrounds the action makes TNT Jackson more of a historical curiosity than a classic, though it shouldn’t be discounted at all when considering the influence of this subgenre.
Sugar Hill (1974)
Director: Paul Maslansky
It’s Foxy Brown with zombies! The setup of Sugar Hill reads exactly the same as Pam Grier’s vehicle: The no-nonsense Diana “Sugar” Hill (Marki Bey) wants to avenge her boyfriend’s death at the hands of evil drug dealers, but because she lacks the resources and power to bring the pain, she seeks the assistance of a voodoo priestess (Zara Cully) to raise the dead and help her kill these no good, dirty bastards who destroyed her community. Yes, we’re dealing with voodoo zombies who can be controlled to do their master’s bidding, instead of the free-roaming Romero kind. Their pinball eyes and dusty bodies covered in Halloween store discount fake spider webs scream an admittedly cheap design—and they seem to be direct influences for the design of the Lectroids from the cult classic The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension—but inherent creepiness abounds. Bey is pretty one-note as she calmly instructs her zombie minions to kill her various enemies (and the bland kills might not be satisfying to gorehounds) but her confident demeanor carries the film. This moody grindhouse genre mash-up is certainly worth the time of any blaxploitation aficionado.
Darktown Strutters (1975)
Director: William Witney
Hang onto your LSD, we’re diving headfirst into crazytown. To merely call Darktown Strutters a blaxploitation parody long before such a thing even existed does disservice to how insanely uncategorizable this 1975 oddity is from the first frame to the last. Like everything on this list, it follows a badass protagonist named Syreena (Trina Parks) as she attempts to uncover the disappearance of her mother by infiltrating an evil crime organization that’s destroying her community. The execution of this formula, however, consists of a manic patchwork of irreverent and absurdist humor, childish fart and poop jokes, an intentionally gaudy and over-the-top pastel psychedelic aesthetic, honest-to-goodness R&B musical numbers, unhinged surrealism that would have made Luis Bunuel blush, and a staggeringly un-PC approach to absolutely everything. Darktown Strutters rarely ever works as a comedy, and is downright annoying at times, but its off-its-rocker exuberance transforms it into a cult classic.