Friday, December 26, 2014
WINTER OF DISCONTENT: Foxy Brown
Of the four films Pam Grier made with Jack Hill, ‘Foxy Brown’ is easily the most famous. In fact, it’s one of the most famous blaxploitation movies of all time. Perhaps only ‘Shaft’ can lay claim to being better known as the key exemplar of the genre.
This perplexes me, since ‘Foxy Brown’ – while, after a slowish start, undeniably entertaining – is nothing compared to ‘Coffy’ as an example of the revenge thriller; and nowhere near as subversive as ‘The Big Doll House’ or ‘The Big Bird Cage’.
It certainly gives its heroine a lot to be vengeful about, though. The opening sequence has Foxy (Grier) called upon to rescue her feckless brother Link (Antonio Fargas) from a beating. Link’s been running numbers but has screwed up to the tune of twenty grand, which leaves him with the twin requirements of a place to hide and a means of raising the do-ray-me. Foxy willing provides the former and inadvertently the latter.
You see, Foxy’s boyfriend, Michael (Terry Carter) is an undercover cop who has just undergone reconstructive surgery and been given a new identity as a protective measure against underworld duo Steve Elias (Peter Brown) and Katherine Wall (Kathryn Loder). That Steve and Katherine are still at liberty suggests Michael’s investigations haven’t been worth a damn, but hey ho! Link intuits that Foxy’s “new” beau is Michael, masquerading under his new persona, and sells him out without a second thought.
In short order, Michael gets whacked and Foxy gets medieval on Link’s ass. Link gives up the goods on Steve and Katherine and Foxy goes out for revenge. Discovering that Katherine operates a modeling agency as a front for high class call girls – whose charms she uses as leverage on judges and local politicos to keep her crew out of jail and her and Steve’s drug running operation off the radar – Foxy gets taken on the books.
So far, so ‘Coffy Part 2’, but whereas ‘Coffy’ begins with its heroine already out for revenge and remorselessly working her way up through a criminal hierarchy, ‘Foxy Brown’ takes a bit of time to get to Michael’s assassination and then puts Foxy in Steve and Katherine’s orbit very quickly. There’s no sense of Foxy having to scheme or improvise or overcome obstacles to get close to her nemeses. Nor does she exploit any of several opportunities she has, before Katherine sets her up with a corrupt judge, to simply take the biatch out. Instead, Foxy recruits junkie hooker Claudia (Juanita Brown) to her scheme and they set out to humiliate said judge in an attempt to ruin Katherine’s judicially-preferential relationship and provoke a reaction from her.
This is where ‘Foxy Brown’ starts running into problems. Simply taking out Katherine and Steve would achieve both of her ends: vengeance for her lover’s death, and severing the connection with the justice system that’s keep scumbags on the streets. Humiliating the judge only achieves the latter objective and tips off Katherine that something’s amiss. Moreover, there’s no reason for Claudia, whose family Katherine is using as leverage against her, to involve herself. When Katherine, predictably, reacts by sending her goons after them, Foxy puts herself in harm’s way in order to protect Claudia.
Harm’s way here refers to drug-pushing misogynists Brandi (H.B. Haggerty) and Slauson (Boyd ‘Red’ Morgan), to whose “ranch” Katherine orders the swiftly captured Foxy be sent. A narrative development, this, which serves no other purpose than woman-in-peril tropes and a sleazy rape scene. Once Foxy contrives an escape route, the real business resumes and she targets Steve’s drug running set-up by conniving her way into the affections of Hays (Sid Haig), a pilot contracted to bring the stuff in.
Once Hill arranges his ducks in a row for the big finale, ‘Foxy Brown’ ticks enough of the boxes to emerge as a decent thriller. But the narrative peregrinations by which Foxy does pointless things for the middle third just to push the film towards feature length annoy. As does a schizophrenic tone which sees outright nastiness cheek-by-jowl with goofy humour (several action scenes are played as slapstick); this is nowhere more in evidence than in a pointless set-piece in a lesbian bar that is horrible in its stereotyping, even by the standards of the 1970s. Also, Loder – so good in some of her other roles – doesn’t even begin to suggest the level of villainy required to make Katherine a credible mob boss.
Still, as in ‘Coffy’ – indeed, as in anything in her filmography – Grier is iconic. She looks amazing and kicks ass with wince-inducing proficiency. Having laid a beatdown on Link and left him in no uncertainty that it’s only kinship that’s prevented her from killing him, Link’s dazed and disbelieving girlfriend gasps, “Who does she think she is?” “That’s my sister,” Link replies shakily, “and she’s a whole lotta woman.” Amen to that.