Judge Brett Cullum is one bad mammajamma, sugar!
From Foxy Brown…
In these movies, Pam Grier is James Bond—she's over-sexed, crafty, a master of disguise, and has her own special trick gadgets as if "Q" was designing from the ghetto. But Bond never had to put up with anybody calling him a "big jugged jigaboo," and he never castrated a man and sent the privates to his girlfriend in a pickle jar. The British secret agent was also never quite this cool, and he never got his own name in any of his theme songs.
Fox in a Box Featuring Pam Grier is one hell of a good time. The movies are outrageously sexy and violent. Sin City seemed so innovative this past year…until you realize that thirty years ago ultraviolence and sex were standard fare in the Blaxpoitation genre. And if there was ever a queen, Pam Grier was it.
Facts of the Case
• Coffy (1973)
• Foxy Brown (1974)
• Sheba, Baby (1975)
Yeah, there are some easy to follow formulas here. But that doesn't change the fact they are awesomely fun and hip.
Let's face it, Pam Grier's movies rocked the action world. If you haven't seen these films, then you've missed more than half of all the in-jokes in every Quentin Tarantino or Robert Rodriguez film ever made. Pulp Fiction, Sin City, and (obviously) Jackie Brown stole almost every cool bit from these movies. And Kill Bill? Sorry, but Uma Thurman doesn't even come close to the "vengeance is mine" anger of Pam Grier in this trio. The Bride may have cut an impressive angry swath, but Coffy will cream you. My money would be on Pam in a dark alley rumble every time. She's the ultimate woman warrior, and she definitely became the queen of black action cinema. At a time when most directors were just looking for an actress who could disrobe and do a couple of Kung Fu moves, she brought something different. Grier wasn't a trained actress, and sometimes her line delivery gives her inexperience away. That never mattered, because she was a natural and brought a realness to her roles nobody could ever teach in a class. She was smart, scrappy, and the most beautiful woman in the world. Don't believe me? Just ask Quentin Tarantino.
Each of these movies was shot cheaply, on location, in under three weeks. The studio just wanted to crank out anything to capitalize on a growing niche market. Coffy was made because the producer had helped develop Cleopatra Jones, which had become a big hit, and he wanted revenge. The studio wanted to crank something out fast, but they found a man who actually cared about his assignment. Jack Hill was a classmate of Francis Ford Coppola in film school; both graduates ended up working with Roger Corman. While Coppola moved on to bigger and better things, Hill was given B-pictures like Coffy to develop. Hill tried his best to make the films rise above their budget limitations. He made the films fun and smart, and expanded the entire Blaxpoitation genre.
When Blaxpoitation started, women were props. They were lucky to get three scenes worth of time, and mainly served the male hero as a bedmate in the opening and closing. Once Cleopatra Jones showed up, the paradigm shifted. Suddenly movies could be made with leading ladies who could do Kung Fu moves. Rumor has it the casting process began to consist of two questions: "Will you get naked?" and "Do you know any karate?" Hill knew Pam Grier from his Corman days, when she had appeared in a couple of "women in prison" features. She certainly had no problems with on-screen nudity, but she didn't know karate. Instead, she wanted to make her character a street fighter or a ghetto hellion. She knew many tricks—such as sticking razor blades in a wig—that had never been seen on the screen before. Hill was a white guy, and he relied on Grier and his cast to add the right elements to make the pictures more true to the black community. Surprisingly, Coffy was a big hit—not only with its intended demographic, but with audiences in general. Foxy Brown was also a big hit. Sheba, Baby was more of a minor success.
Out of the three features here, Coffy is the best. It feels the most accomplished, and stands up to the test of time. It's an ingenious revenge tale, with Grier getting in and out of scrapes you're convinced she can never make it through. The actress could have been degraded by the exploitation material, but somehow she punches through the stereotypes and retains her dignity and poise. Hill's trick is that he develops the characters well, and the movie moves at a brisk entertaining clip. Foxy Brown is equally fun, but it does feel more rushed and less developed. It's a lot less intelligent than Coffy, and seems to have less to say. Still, it's fun, violent, and sexy. Sheba, Baby is not directed by Hill, and it feels too much like a retread of his earlier efforts without the eye for characters. But if you watch the other two first, you realize by the time it was made Grier's presence was enough to carry a film, even with shorthand substituting for a plot.
The Fox in a Box Featuring Pam Grier collection is simply an assembly of three titles that have been previously released individually. You'll recognize them as $10 titles from the shelves of your favorite chain store. Nothing extra has been done to them—they are the original releases. The only new material here is a bonus disc containing two documentaries produced by Vibe magazine: the first has rapper and actress Vivica Fox (Kill Bill: Volume 1) talking about Pam Grier's legacy; the second looks at how these films influence today's hip-hop scene. There is no word from the lady herself, and that's a real shame. Pam's take on these movies would be priceless, but it's not to be found. The most substantial extra comes in the form of two commentaries by director Jack Hill for Coffy and Foxy Brown. He gives an oral history of how the movies came about and why he made them. He's extremely proud of Coffy, but somewhat apologetic about Foxy Brown. Seems the second movie was intended to be a sequel, but nobody involved wanted to tarnish Coffy's good name, so they changed the character. The commentaries are both great, and very insightful. Also included are some priceless period trailers which are a hoot, particularly the one for Foxy Brown that rhymes.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The transfers here are as "old school" as the movies featured. They are non-anamorphic widescreen, but the aspect ratios should make them fit most widescreen televisions nicely. The prints are old, grainy, and soft. The colors are clear enough, but they definitely have that '70s look to them. The soundtracks are clear, but (not surprisingly) mono. The transfers seem to mirror the quality of the movies themselves: Coffy looks the best, Foxy Brown is a close second, and Sheba, Baby looks the worst. I can't bitch too much, because the crude transfers actually add to the charm of these films, which were intended to play in drive-in theaters across the country. They were hardly ever pristine, and I doubt much could be done.
None of these films could be made today. Black Exploitation Cinema could only exist in an era before political correctness. Each of these flicks has some downright offensive passages that will shock any modern viewer, and make them cringe. Sensitive minds will be outraged by the racial profiling in these celluloid exhibitions of stereotypical racism. The actors in the films were just thankful to be working, but the damage to the image of their race on screen would take decades to unravel. Tarantino may be still working in the "exploitation" genre, but he has the good sense to make his projects multicultural and satirical. No white director today could get away with these productions. Yet somehow Foxy Brown is slated to be remade, with Halle Berry (Catwoman) possibly taking on the title role. Gonna have to be a lot of changes to make it acceptable in today's market.
A feminist reading of these films would be horrific for anyone but Camille Paglia. Pam is raped, tortured, and called horrible names. She uses sex whenever possible, and always seems to get into catfights that result in someone losing her top. Female viewers will be thankful for the evolution of the woman warrior beyond the insufferable slings and arrows hurled at Grier in these films. Still, I couldn't help but see how much the Black Power and ERA movements of the time influenced her characters. She was smarter than the men who abused her, and she took down the inevitable white villains that haunted her world. Pam was a fashion model at one point, and she knows how to carry herself with dignity even while crawling in mud. In some odd way she was empowering, but the films are still quite offensive when seen through modern eyes of informed women.
Fox in a Box Featuring Pam Grier is honestly some of the most fun I've had with a box set this year. The movies were intended to be "B" flicks in an exploitation genre, but they hold up as entertaining fare surprisingly well. I'm so used to seeing Pam Grier on The L Word that it was a shock to see her so young and so sexy. (By the way—she still looks pretty young and sexy, but she doesn't flaunt it as much.) She burns the screen with a great presence, and this set will make anyone a believer in the power of a strong black woman. She's superfly, baby.
No honky judge could hold Pam Grier, so I'm letting her black, beautiful self go free so she can open cans of whupass on anyone who dares cross her.
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Scales of Justice, Coffy
Perp Profile, Coffy
Distinguishing Marks, Coffy
• Director Commentary
Scales of Justice, Foxy Brown
Perp Profile, Foxy Brown
Distinguishing Marks, Foxy Brown
• Director Commentary
Scales of Justice, Sheba, Baby
Perp Profile, Sheba, Baby
Distinguishing Marks, Sheba, Baby
Review content copyright © 2005 Brett Cullum; Site design and review layout copyright © 2013 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.