The Alamo Drafthouse is a brand built on weird. Beyond being situated in a town that has long aspired to remain eccentric in the face of all normality, it’s easy to forget that the original Alamo started as something of a private screening club, running prints of the odd and obscure into all hours of the night*. Though the company has obviously grown into an internationally recognized chain of first run movie palaces, the Drafthouse Ritz in Austin, Texas remains committed to showcasing genre repertory programming, namely via its Terror Tuesday and Weird Wednesday showcases. This column is a concentrated effort to keep that spirit of strangeness alive, as programmers Joe A. Ziemba and Laird Jimenez (often pulling from the extensive AGFA archives) are truly doing Satan’s bidding by bringing ATX weekly doses of delightful trash art.
The eighth entry into this disreputable canon is Jack Hill’s iconic Blaxploitation revenge picture, Coffy…
At one point during Coffy, we’re treated to almost an entire scene that’s shot through a fish tank – perhaps a knowing metaphor on its director’s part, representing the whole of his filmography. For one glance at his resume reveals that Jack Hill creates microcosms. Whether it be a dilapidated rural mansion, inhabited by a demented clan of inbreeds (Spider Baby), or a figure eight racetrack, dominated by smash ‘em up derby drivers (Pit Stop), Hill is a filmmaker who worked within the parameters of the distinct worlds he built, bolstering them with skeletal power structures meant to be toppled by those they oppress. As with the best motion picture molders, the devil is found in the infinitesimal details, which converge into a fully realized universe.
Sometimes, these miniature cosmos become quite literal prisons – his Philippines-shot WIP pictures The Big Doll House and Big Bird Cage being the obvious examples – housing would-be revolutionaries, pushed over the edge of violence. With Coffy, Hill’s horizons broaden slightly, as the director dives into the San Fernando ghettos of LA in the 70s; an alien arena to the Caucasian producers who delegated that he simply shoot a cheap, marketable revenge picture. Instead, Coffy became not only the defining film of his career, but also fashioned a radical icon out of Pam Grier’s sexy, smoldering form. We’re on the outside looking in on this hyper-violent fishbowl, rooting for the titular avenging angel to lay waste to every white motherfucker who stands in her way.
Like all of the ten features that carry Hill’s name under the directorial credit (and even the one where he goes by “Brian Stuart”), the filmmaker approached Coffy from a singularly sideways angle, while still delivering exactly what the moneymen desired. For Pit Stop, Roger Corman merely suggested he make ‘a stock car movie’. Only Hill wanted to shoot ‘an art film’. Taking the legendary low-budget producer’s advice (‘do both’), Hill crafted a hybrid of the two concepts; a relaxed hangout picture, gorgeously filmed on black and white film stock and featuring his favorite character actor, Sid Haig. But Pit Stop also featured several thrilling set pieces, during which hard men twist steel and kick up dust in their wake.
Coffy is the product of another independently minded movie house: American International Pictures. Rushed out by producer Samuel Z. Arkoff in order to compete with a rival studio’s Blaxploitation spoof (Warner Bros’ Cleopatra Jones), Hill was allotted a budget of $500,000 (the producers’ cap for “black films” at the time) and left mostly to his own devices. Inspired by Superfly and Sweet Sweetback’s Badassss Song, Hill and his producers thought it’d be interesting to turn the urban hero on its ear and produce a picture that presented a female counterpoint to those successful afro-sporting alphas. Knowing he’d have limited time and resources, Hill kept the script sparse, but speckled it with stunningly precise speech; a true marvel of economic writing.
Unlike Tamara Dobson’s Special Agent in Cleopatra Jones (whose “Bondian” traits could’ve just as easily been inhabited by a man), Hill wrote Coffy as a character whose primary weapon is her femininity. Thankfully, he tailored the part to Pam Grier (with whom Hill had worked on The Big Bird Cage and Doll House), an actress born with a veritable estrogen bazooka. It’s difficult to adequately quantify just how fucking perfect Grier is here; an already talented woman who wrangles a role written specifically for her and ends up manufacturing not so much a persona, but an extension of herself. The very best revenge tales are those that involve ordinary people (see Rolling Thunder for the male flipside to this coin). Theirs is a struggle not only with a quest for vengeance, but also with the darkness that resides in their bellies because of the atrocities they’ve been unfortunate enough to witness and, in turn, commit. Grier not only sells this vulnerability, but also the viciousness it breeds.
The most essential thing to remember when approaching Grier’s performance in Coffy is that she could be any woman. There’s nothing particularly extraordinary about this revenge-seeking goddess; Coffy doesn’t have superspy gadgets or know Kung Fu. All she has to survive is her wits and her will to best all who try and hold her down. There’s a ferocity to Grier that jumps off the screen, but it’s counterbalanced by a tenderness that makes Coffy not just relatable, but kin. She could be your sister, mother, aunt or grandma. And you are the ghost of her dead sister, cheering her on as she seeks retribution for your untimely death at the hands of the pushers who poisoned the neighborhood your earthly form once called ‘home’.
For a white man who readily admits to not being all that familiar with African-American life in the 1970s (Hill credits Grier with filling these gaps), Coffy feels inarguably authentic, as the eighteen day location shoot captures the San Fernando Valley in all of its smoggy, sun-soaked infamy. Long before Quentin Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson made this LA wasteland their own private stomping grounds, Hill was exploring the wood paneled bars and dilapidated apartments with a carpenter’s eye for interior texture. Yet beyond revealing where these small time hustlers spent most of their days (pool side – in the case of the Big Bird jump suited King George [Robert DoQui]), Hill also knew that there was a world above the streets as well.
Much how The Wire would (over three decades later) take on the universe of the dealer from nearly every level of urban power, Coffy isn’t afraid to tackle the idea that exploitation doesn’t stop at the poisoned doper. Their dirty money trickles up instead of down, lining the pockets of politicians and mafiosos who are keen on ensuring that a healthy distance is kept between themselves and the source. Coffy’s crusade may start with the deeply personal requiting of her sister’s pusher men, but it ends with the toppling of an invisible system she never knew existed in the first place. It’s this “fist in the air” spirit that keeps Coffy feeling incredibly subversive, while Hill packages what could’ve easily become phony posturing inside of a cruel action picture. All the while, his script appropriates racially charged visuals, such as a local dealer being lynched as punishment for causing his higher ups too much grief – a sedan taking the place of a horse to haul his body through the dirty streets.
Hill often receives flak for his workmanlike direction, but what’s lacking in flair is made up for in sound composition (aided in no small part by Nashville cinematographer Paul Lohmann). The opening credits, viewed through the windshield of a pimp’s cruiser, are a stunning skyline view of the Hell in which we’re about to be immersed. Later, once Coffy is out of the backseat, her face is often photographed in silhouette, streetlights overhead illuminating her beautiful countenance (a composition Tarantino would lift wholesale for his own love letter to Grier, Jackie Brown). The final moments of the movie (in which the Second Unit capture Coffy walking along a hazy coastline), echoes its most crucial bit of dialogue. At one point, our angel comes close to confessing her crimes to Carter (William Elliott), the doomed officer who attempts to help Coffy on her righteous mission. She says she feels like she’s trapped “in a dream”, and this final tableau only enforces the idea that she may never escape the path she’s put herself on. Once one begins utilizing violence to chip away at the oppressive forces around them, they themselves can lose sight of their own moral compass. Through shrewd dialogue and visuals, Hill has defined her humanity, but also enveloped the woman in a shroud of guilt that may never lift.
It’s easy to say that, without Jack Hill, we may not have Blaxploitation as we know it today. But it’s true. His follow-up, Foxy Brown, would help cement both he and Grier as stunning icons of the period. One of the great shames of the 70s is the fact that we only got three more films following his most recognizable works, none of which stack up to the string of near-perfect B-movie brilliance he produced from 1967 to 1973 (though Switchblade Sisters ain’t no slouch). However, during this six year period of industriousness, Hill left a legacy that can still be felt today, his filmic imprint trickling into the CVs of some of our best cinematic minds (not to mention Francis Ford Coppola – whose former UCLA classmate’s short film, The Host, allegedly inspired the re-jiggered final act of Apocalypse Now). That might be the biggest testament to Jack Hill’s genius: he burned so bright for a short period of time, but that heat still radiates over forty years later.
*For an oral history of the Drafthouse’s beginnings, I’ll refer you to Zack McGhee’s wonderful “My Favorite Movie” Podcast, where he interviews old school DH programmers Lars Nilsen and Zack Carlson, as well as current Wednesday night ringmaster, Laird Jimenez. They’re GREAT listens, full of knowledge, wit and insight.
Tonight on Weird Wednesday: Pinball Summer