50 Years Ago, Pam Grier Made Herself into a Blaxploitation Action Star with Coffy

Movies Features Blaxploitation
50 Years Ago, Pam Grier Made Herself into a Blaxploitation Action Star with Coffy

Somewhere between Wednesday, June 13, 1973 and Friday, June 15, 1973, the Pam Grier movie Coffy was released in theaters all around the country. In his Chicago Sun-Times pan, Roger Ebert opened up his review by calling it “a marriage between a soft-core flick and a Blaxploitation movie.” However, he could not stop gushing about Grier and her, um, assets. (“She’s beautiful… And she has great cleavage, too.”) Over at the New York Times, A.H. Weiler dropped a quickie review the day after it came out. The reviewer mostly summarized the movie and said that Grier “is tougher than the opposition.”

Filmed in a mind-blowing 18 days on a $500,000 budget, this urban crime thriller marked the beginning of Grier’s ‘70s reign as a Blaxploitation action star. She plays Flower Child Coffin (“Coffy” for short), an L.A. nurse who goes on a killing spree, blowing holes in the junkies and pushers who sell heroin to little kids—like her 11-year-old sister, who’s resting in a juvenile rehabilitation facility. When a kind-hearted cop (and former flame of Coffy’s) gets beaten to the point of brain damage by thugs, after he refuses his partner’s offer to start accepting bribes, she decides to go after bigger fish.

The Afro-ed Coffy infiltrates the stable of flamboyantly-dressed pimp King George (Robert DoQui) by perming up her hair and pretending to be a Jamaican escort named Mystique. (The other ladies contemptuously call her “Miss Stick.”) She does this to get closer to upper-class drug peddlers like Arturo Vitroni (Allan Arbus), a Mafia don whose kink is degrading darker-skinned beauties. 

Coffy wasn’t out to win Oscars. When it isn’t racist rants from repugnant characters or monologues from Grier about drugs in the Black community, a lot of the dialogue consists of characters spouting exposition to each other. And most of the performances are downright laughable, especially from the actors who play the skeevy bad guys. (Grindhouse heavy Sid Haig chews the scenery of every scene he’s in as Vitroni’s main goon.) Nevertheless, this disreputable B-movie (with a funky-as-hell soundtrack provided by soul/jazz great Roy Ayers) won over Black audiences. It grossed $4 million and made a stone-cold heroine out of Grier. She plays the titular temptress as a modern-day Medusa, enticing clueless men with her bosomy, drop-dead-gorgeous ways until it’s too late. You do get a kick out of watching one racist asshole after another fall under her spell—and eventually getting their brutal comeuppance.

Coffy marked the third collaboration between Grier and veteran exploitation filmmaker Jack Hill. When American International Pictures approached Hill about doing “a Black woman’s revenge story,” the pale-faced Hill didn’t know how to make that happen. Thankfully, he had a secret weapon in Grier, whom he directed in such women-in-prison flicks (a genre where Grier was becoming a regular) as The Big Doll House and The Big Bird Cage

While Hill is listed as writer and director, an episode of the TCM podcast The Plot Thickens devoted to Grier’s life and career has both Hill and Grier revealing that Grier worked with Hill on the script. “She gave me some really good ideas, things that I could never come up with on my own,” Hill said. One example he cites is a scene where Coffy gets in a huge catfight with George’s gals. One hair-pulling honey gets her hands cut up because Coffy hid razor blades in her ‘do. Yeah, that was all Grier.

As much as Coffy and other movies starring Grier were big hits with Black audiences, it seemed white people didn’t start caring about her filmography until Quentin Tarantino started calling Coffy an all-time classic back in the mid-‘90s. Its woman-with-a-vendetta plot clearly inspired Tarantino’s Kill Bill movies. (Before shooting those movies, Tarantino screened Coffy for star Uma Thurman to help her create her ex-assassin protagonist.) In the 1997 Blaxploitation tribute book What It Is… What It Was, Tarantino lays out just how much Coffy meant to him as a kid:

“The film that just knocked my socks off the most was Coffy, from the moment she shot the guy in the head with a sawed off shotgun and his head exploded like a watermelon. I had never seen that and then it just got better from there. Pam Grier was just an incredible badass, she was just so great. Coffy is one of the greatest revenge movies ever made.”  

Much like when John Travolta became an in-demand star after he cast him in Pulp Fiction, Tarantino thought he could do the same for Grier (whom he almost cast in Pulp, in the role that was eventually given to Rosanna Arquette). He made her the lead in Jackie Brown, his 1997 adaptation of the Elmore Leonard novel Rum Punch, with a supporting cast that included Robert De Niro, Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Keaton, Bridget Fonda and Robert Forster (who was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar). 

The fact that Tarantino managed to make a major motion picture centered around a middle-aged actress of color—in 1997!—is downright miraculous. Unfortunately, Brown was a flop, and Grier didn’t become another comeback kid. Oh sure, she landed roles here and there over the years (remember when she was on The L Word?), but she never got to be the main attraction as she was during her ‘70s prime. In the days of Afros and bellbottoms, Grier was a lethal, luscious queen. She dropped such awesome, quotable movie lines as Coffy’s “I’m gonna piss on your grave tomorrow.” She came with the goods—figuratively and literally—in each violent vehicle she headlined.

At least you can still see Grier, at her sexy, shotgun-wielding finest, in Coffy, currently streaming on Tubi and Pluto TV.

Craig D. Lindsey is a Houston-based writer. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @unclecrizzle.

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