Memory, Images, History
Thursday, November 4, 2010
Blog posting written by Jan-Christopher Horak, Director, UCLA Film & Television Archive
Driving down the L.A. freeway to Westwood in a persistent drizzle, I was wondering whether audiences would melt away for our screening of Jack Hill’s COFFY (1973), starring Pam Grier. The Director-Screenwriter had agreed to participate in a Q & A between a double bill which was to end with CLEOPATRA JONES (1975), both films a part of a film series I was curating with my colleague Allyson Fields for the Billy Wilder Theater: “Paint It Black: Revisiting Blaxploitation and African American Cinema in the 1970s.”
COFFY was the mega hit that initiated the cycle of blaxploitation films featuring super strong African American women, a cycle primarily carried by Pam Grier, but also including Patricia Dobson (CLEO JONES), and Vonetta McGee (THOMASINE AND BUSHROD, 1974), while Haile Gerima (BUSH MAMA, 1975) and Jamaa Fanaka (EMMA MAE, 1976) provided self-conscious critiques of the subgenre from the independent fringes. Pam Grier’s gun-slinging, hard-loving, overly sexualized “mamas” offered an antidote to the pliant sex kittens of SUPER FLY (1972) and other films of that ilk. Yet, despite its liberal, anti-racist and proto-feminist intentions, COFFY was an AIP exploitation film and is consequently riddled with overt sexism (large doses of nudity) and unconscious racism, including a profuse use of racist epithets and visual stereotypes.
Back when I was Director of the Munich Filmmuseum, which operated an art cinema seven days a week, I was interviewed by the largest Munich paper, which on the morning of the article’s publication plastered newsstand poster boards with my quote: “Kino ist ein Pokerspiel” (Film programming is like a poker game). You never know what is going to hit and what is going to miss… When I got to the theater, my worst fears proved substantiated. The audience was small. Nevertheless, I soldiered on and looked up Jack’s credits to prep for my intro.
Ten minutes before show time, my cinema manager, Tim, asked me to come into the lobby, where I found Pam Grier waiting. I’m too old to faint, but my faced betrayed such astonishment that her press agent had to take a picture of my befuddlement, as I stammered what a huge fan I had been for decades. So, about fifty lucky audience members got to see Pam Grier give an energetic and entertaining intro to the film and her recently published autobiography, Foxy: My Life in Three Acts. Far from being the ghetto child of her films, Pam grew up on a range in Wyoming, where she learned to hunt, fish and do a man’s job. She’s a cancer survivor, which she says has changed her whole outlook on life. She took a couple questions, in which she stressed the value of education, then disappeared into the misty night from which she had come.
After the screening of COFFY, Jack Hill’s opening remark on stage was that he wasn’t sure he had discovered Pam (which he did when he cast her in THE BIG DOLL HOUSE, 1971) or she had discovered him. He’s a UCLA man, a fellow student of Francis Ford Coppola and a Roger Corman alumnus. Hill corrected an error in her supposedly “ghost written” autobiography, namely that COFFY was originally written for a white actress, which it wasn’t. Hill specifically wrote the role for Pam and characterized her as one of the hardest working actresses he knows, but also noted that there was still a large amount of racism around the studios and that producers resisted casting an African American woman in the lead. She was a professional from the moment she walked on the set as a novice.
So the bottom of the bill started horribly late, something you try to avoid in the cinema business, but a select audience had gotten a real show. Driving back to Pasadena on the freeway, as the drizzle started again, I decided that for me personally as a film historian-programmer, getting a hug from Pam Grier was a moment to remember, like the time Audrey Hepburn pecked me on the cheek or a nearly 100 year old Lilian Gish sat with me during a screening in a red velvet dress that could have been as old as she.