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Coffy(1973)

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Coffy (1973)

SYNOPSIS:Meet Coffy (Pam Grier), a woman with a grudge. The scourge of heroin addiction has claimed her entire family-such breaks are tough enough already, no doubt, but unbearable when her little 11-year-old sister joins the junkie ranks. Driven by righteous anger, Coffy descends on the world of drug kingpins and pimps like an avenging angel.

She masquerades as a prostitute, hides razor blades in her Afro, shoots bad guys in the crotch, and unleashes holy mayhem wherever she goes. Her antics pull the veil on a hidden corruption that shakes her faith, but drives her fury ever farther...

Coffy (1973) is a drive-in fever dream full of graphic violence and nudity. This is a film that takes the term "crotch shots" literally. It is full of prostitutes-and not just any prostitutes, mind you, but lesbian prostitutes. And these lesbian prostitutes get into catfights in which ripping off someone's top is somehow equivalent to a knock-out. Add to the mix some deliriously quotable dialogue, and of course Pam Grier herself.

Grier was an Air Force brat who grew up at a military base in England. Returning to the states as a teenager, she had her sights set on a medical career. To help pay college tuition bills, she enrolled in the Miss Colorado Universe pageant-in 1967, she was the only dark-skinned contestant. She placed second, and caught the eye of Hollywood talent scouts.

The girl went West, and took a job at American International Pictures as a receptionist. Answering phones was the day job, but AIP's top director Roger Corman had a keen eye for talent and saw to it that Ms. Grier got a walk-on role in Russ Meyer's Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970) --and an acting career was, at last, belatedly launched.

Meanwhile, another burgeoning talent was working his way up the ladder. Jack Hill was a low-budget auteurist filmmaker schooled in the Roger Corman-style of quickie production. His first writer/director credit was on Spider Baby (1968), a notorious horror comedy starring a washed-up Lon Chaney, Jr. and the old-school black comedian Mantan Moreland in a film so determinedly bizarre it was all-but minted as a cult property.

Hill was now stuck in the Philippines, cranking out women-in-prison flicks with, you guessed it, Pam Grier. Sleazy stuff it may have been, but it paid the bills.

Along came Max Julien with an idea for a movie: a sexy black woman vs. the drug trade; he called it Cleopatra Jones (1973). AIP liked the idea, and was eager to set to work-when Warner Brothers scooped the project out by offering Julien more money. Burned, AIP producer Larry Gordon decided to crank out his own "black woman revenge picture" and called in Jack Hill to handle it.

Hill's only experiences with black culture were occasional forays into the jazz scene of his youth. This put him a league ahead of a lot of other white filmmakers now scurrying to cash in on the blaxploitation craze, but Hill knew that there was a gulf between the world of 1940s era jazz musicians and the ghettos of the 1970s. So he turned to Pam Grier.

AIP was not sure Pam Grier had it in her to be a top-lining star, and it took some hard lobbying from Hill to convince them to give her the chance. Hill specifically wrote Coffy for Grier. She in turn added her own ideas-especially concerning Coffy's more unusual weaponry and tactics. Between them they fashioned a bona fide black superhero. Nominally a nurse (blink and you'll miss her one scene in scrubs), Coffy is tough-as-steel, no-nonsense, sexier than a dozen women put together. She takes names and kicks ass-or vice-versa when the moment demands.

And audiences ate it up. Coffy was a huge hit, beyond the limited expectations and lowball ambitions of its studio. It even outperformed the slicker, more ambitious Cleopatra Jones--AIP had their revenge at last.

There is a moment in the film which is but a throwaway, a momentary piece of business unconnected to the larger action: Pam Grier's titular heroine is waiting in her car outside the hospital where she works. A white man approaches, asks her business, starts to hassle her. What's next? Rape, perhaps? A cop arrives, a black cop. He immediately suspects the worst of the man, makes him "assume the position," frisks him, humiliates him.

A small moment, perhaps, but powerful nonetheless.

This is the stuff of blaxploitation-the giddy feeling of turnabout, if not in real life at least on the screen. For audiences all-too accustomed to the usual police routine, white cops assuming the worst of blacks, it was thrilling and satisfying to see the game played in reverse. For a handful of years in the early-to-mid 1970s, grindhouse theaters thrived on such wish-fulfillment fantasies.

For some activist organizations, the whole thing was painful: pop culture trafficking in the worst images of black life. For black filmmakers, both on and off camera, the trend was the first genuine opportunity, long overdue, to be anything other than marginalized. For audiences, white and black, the films were wild, trashy fun, escapism of the highest order. Since blaxploitation meant so many different things, small wonder the term itself continues to provoke controversy.

Conventional wisdom held that the establishment (read: white) press cooked up "blaxploitation" as a catch-all; others insist that the NAACP coined the term as a pejorative for a breed of movie they found demeaning to African-Americans; Pam Grier herself says some black marketing execs at AIP thought it up in a fit of genius.

If anyone should know, Grier would. Not only was she the reigning Queen of Blaxploitation, but she was at the AIP reception desk answering phones when (and if) that brainwave hit.

Rarely have pulp movies been tasked with so much-escapism can't rewrite history or undo generations of prejudice. For decades, black actors were shoved to the margins or unemployed altogether. Once in a while a Sidney Poitier would come along to prove the exception to the rule, most often the talents of dark-skinned filmmakers were simply squandered. Blaxploitation spun history on its head, and changed the dynamic altogether. Doors opened in Hollywood for the first time-demand even exceeded supply. Yet the groundbreaking opportunities were linked to a very narrow genre.

"Black exploitation" was a simplistic formula, tailor-made for low-budget houses like AIP: film noir crime thrillers revamped with lots of graphic violence and sex. Take a classic noir thriller or gangster pic, set it in Harlem or Watts or South Central, make most of the characters black (except the vilest villains, natch), play that funky music, serve hot.

Hill saw through it like glass: these were just amped up versions of the B&W thrillers of the 40s. As a diehard fan of film noir, Hill easily adapted memories of things like White Heat (1949) into the new context-and being an erudite intellectual, he was equally comfortable pilfering ideas out of Shakespeare while he was at it.

The result is one of the most carefully constructed exploitation films of all time-almost obsessively detailed. It wasn't enough for Hill to simply present Coffy as a chick with a 'tude, she had to have a good reason to go on her killing spree: Hill has her whole family blighted by the scourge of heroin, with the addiction of her 11-year old sister the final proverbial straw. But even that wasn't enough motivation, thought Hill-so Coffy has to watch her childhood friend get beaten into a brain-damaged pulp by drug-dealing thugs, too. And did I mention that the victim was a black cop, the only truly "good" character in the film?

Coffy's vengeance may be justified and cathartic (Hill has stories of audiences hooting in bloodthirsty accord as Grier blows away bad guys on screen), but as she wages her one-woman war on drugs she is all the while wondering aloud about the morality of her mission. Racist reviewers, unwilling or unable to seek nuance in a "black" film, missed such complexity, and saw only an unremittingly violent picture. Blaxploitation fans knew better-like its cousin Super Fly (1972), this film uses its soundtrack to contradict and comment on the story. While Grier struts her stuff, the soundtrack music blares its refrain, "Coffy, baby, you can't see right from wrong." Hill knew from film noir, a genre that had no time for absolutist right and wrong, but reveled in shades of gray.

Most reviewers, even when they panned the flick, recognized Pam Grier's fabulous star power. Roger Ebert had crossed paths with Grier before-he was the screenwriter for Russ Meyer's 1970 Beyond the Valley of the Dolls which gave Grier her screen debut; as a critic he had a better appreciation for pulp than most. He noted that Grier's talents had until now been relegated to "the kinds of movies frequented only by demented creeps and movie critics." Some of those critics were still mired in the plantation mentality that blaxploitation was fighting: Variety's reviewer summed Coffy up as "the story of a black tart." Jack Hill still fumes over that article even to this day.

When Robert Altman saw Coffy, he immediately poached one of its actors (Robert DoQui) and its cinematographer (Paul Lohmann) for his next opus, Nashville (1975). Pam Grier became a major movie star-joining the select ranks of Barbra Streisand and Liza Minnelli as the only actresses in Hollywood capable of "opening" a film on their own marquee power. A generation later, Quentin Tarantino would strip mine the entire film, cutting and pasting references to it in all of his films.

The final scene of the film promises, "It's not the end, it's the beginning." In fact, it was neither-but Coffy sits comfortably at the top of the heap, as one of the high water marks of a singular moment in pop culture when black cinema finally got some of its own back.

Producer: Robert A. Papazian
Screenwriter and Director: Jack Hill
Art Direction: Perry Ferguson
Cinematography: Paul Lohmann
Film Editing: Chuck McClelland
Original Music: Roy Ayers
Cast: Pam Grier (Coffy), Booker Bradshaw (Brunswick), Robert DoQui (King George), William Elliott (Carter Brown), Allan Arbus (Vitroni), Sid Haig (Omar), Barry Cahill (McHenry).
C-91m.

by David Kalat

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Coffy (1973)

AIP executive Larry Gordon gave filmmaker Jack Hill his marching orders: "I want you to open the picture with a scene where this black chick just kills the sh*t out of two people."

OK, thought Hill, no ambiguity there. Other than the fact that, well, that was all Gordon had. Just that one scene. It would be up to Hill to concoct the rest, to live up to Gordon's ambition of beating Cleopatra Jones at its own game. "My heart sank," recalls Hill, "but I needed the job, so I gave it a shot."

Hill approached the task by crafting the story as "racist, from the Black point of view." Hill was unable to get Charles Napier to appear in the film, because the actor resented the anti-white attitude of the script. For Hill, this was key to the movie's success-giving a long-suffering audience an overdue taste of payback.

The film indicts the White Establishment for fostering the drug trade as a way of keeping blacks down. Coffy has to take the law into her own hands, because she learns the hard way that the police are in league with the crooks. We see the white crime lords take over ghetto crime, sexually humiliate black women, lynch a black pimp, and profit from human suffering. But what the movie says in words, it sometimes undermines with onscreen action. The most eloquent statement of the film's apparent politics comes from a duplicitous character who is revealed to be as corrupt as anyone else.

Hill inserted radical politics into several of his thrillers from the 1970s. In Foxy Brown (1974), Pam Grier's character joins up with a sort of Black Panthers militia; the same idea was developed further in Switchblade Sisters (1975). These films were sometimes banned abroad; some countries were deeply unsettled by images of sisters doing it for themselves. What if women watched these movies and actually started to think of themselves as powerful?

For Pam Grier, Coffy's strength was emblematic of the time. These were the war years, remember, when Vietnam was swallowing hordes of young men and leaving many young women to fend for themselves. Unable to look to men to do for them, these women found their own masculine side.

Grier came to the project with concrete ideas about how to equip her character: the razor blades in the hair, the bobby pins wielded as deadly weapons, these were Grier's contributions. "She had that kind of life experience in those things," says Hill.

That Grier's life experience veered into the world of acting had a lot to do with Jack Hill. He had come up the ranks of low-budget quickies, doing crazy things like shooting Boris Karloff's last four films, back-to-back-cramming all of Karloff's scenes for all four films into a handful of days in Hollywood, then bumbling off to Mexico to shoot the rest of the material without him. Hill got his start with Roger Corman, shooting scenes to fill out Francis Ford Coppola's unfinished Dementia 13 (1963).

It was this kind of ability to squeeze blood from rocks that convinced Corman to send Hill in on a run of women-in-prison flicks in the Philippines. Corman had also spotted Grier at the AIP offices and invited her to take an acting career seriously. It started with Women in Cages (1971), starring Hill's pal Sid Haig and giving Pam Grier her first meaningful screen appearance. Grier had no acting experience, but Hill recognized raw charisma (and Haig spent his nights coaching her). By the time Coffy came along, Hill knew what Grier was capable of.

For the rest of the cast, Hill had definite ideas. Many were friends he wanted to employ-such as Haig (who played an Armenian bodyguard), Carol Lawson (a brutalized whore), and Robert DoQui (flashy pimp King George). As crooked politico Brunswick, Hill tapped Booker Bradshaw, a classically-trained actor from England used to working with the likes of Sir Laurence Olivier. For one climactic scene, Hill simply mentioned to Bradshaw, "I took this scene from Richard III," and the Shakespeare vet knew exactly what to do.

Coffy was shot in just 18 days for a budget of a mere $500,000. Rather than construct sets, AIP sent Hill out to shoot entirely on location, a decision Hill felt was poor economizing. The money you might have saved by not building sets you lost trying to fight the elements and outside factors beyond strict control. It was emblematic of the studio's pervasive contempt for blaxploitation: they were happy to make money off these things, but never once considered them worth taking seriously.

But Hill was just a director-for-hire, and as soon as the footage was in the can, the studio sent him packing. Nowadays, even lowly directors have a contractual right to see their work through the editing phase and test screened-producers can alter it then, but not before. Back in 1973, the rules were different, and Hill played no part in the editing of Coffy.

Coffy opened to excellent business, drawing in better box office than AIP had even hoped. It even found huge success abroad-something AIP never even considered. As the saying goes, it was big in Japan.

Larry Gordon asked Hill back for a sequel, with the wonderfully lurid title Burn, Coffy, Burn. At the eleventh hour, AIP's sales department decreed that sequels made less money than originals, and didn't want to hobble the movie's chances from the outset. Larry Gordon was angry-he'd started to think of Coffy as a franchise character a la James Bond. Jack Hill was more sanguine about the change, but thought the new title Foxy Brown was tawdry and insulting. In the end, Foxy Brown proved its own mettle, and wound up being a more enduring name than Coffy (just ask the hip-hop star who borrowed the name as her own).

Recently, talk has floated around remake-addicted Hollywood of a new version of Coffy to star Halle Berry in the Pam Grier role. Hill chuckles at the idea that this once notorious exploitation quickie could have such legs... and secure in the knowledge that whatever comes from such talk, nothing will ever unseat this powerful little thriller from the memories of its many fans.

Compiled by David Kalat

SOURCES:
Jack Hill, commentary track on the MGM Coffy DVD.
Darius James, That's Blaxploitation, St. Martin's Griffin.
Colin Murphy, "She's Here, She's Grier," The Vital Voice.
Interview with Sid Haig, Psychotronic Video.
Gerald Martinez et al, What It Is...What It was!, Hyperion Books.

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Coffy (1973)

"Coffy is slightly more serious and a little more inventive than it needs to be."
~Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

"Jack Hill, who wrote and directs with an action-atuned hand, inserts plenty of realism in footage in which Pam Grier in title role ably acquits herself. She takes on her prey, including pushers, crooked cops and politicians, pimps, gangsters et al, with a ferocity which builds into often-suspenseful sequence."
Variety

"Judging by the talents she displays in this action drama, Pam Grier might yet emerge as the first black female superstar in today's market. Miss Grier is a capable and good-looking performer who averages two or three nude scenes per film. She won't let her fans down here and will pick up some of the devotees of kung fu features via her athletic prowess in a long fight scene with several girls. As written and directed by Jack Hill, Coffy is reminiscent of the first "Ginger" epic and undoubtedly will turn into a series that should rival the Cheri Caffaro starrers as grosses."
- Boxoffice Magazine

"They don't make 'me like this anymore. They wouldn't be allowed."
~Barry Woodcock, DVD Times

"Superficially just another black exploitation film (one of the first to feature a woman in a strong central role)...what makes the film is essentially the character of Coffy as played by Pam Grier...it is a performance that defies and subverts the genre."
~Time Out London

"Coffy is a film overflowing with energy and cockeyed brilliance. The movie is essential viewing for anyone who's serious about studying great filmmaking."
~EfilmCritic

"Immortal."
~G. Noel Gross, DVD Talk

Compiled by David Kalat

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Coffy (1973)

BRUNSWICK (Booker Bradshaw): I never mix business and pleasure-except in the ratio of 3 to 1.

BRUNSWICK: Don't try any of your Latin machismo on her, she's a liberated woman!

COFFY (Pam Grier): Not that liberated, go on!

COFFY: Ah, yes, Mr. George, I presume.
KING GEORGE (Robert DoQui): You're the lady from Jamaica who called me.
COFFY: That I am, mon, and I can see that you're not at all disappointed, of course. So I'll come straight to the point as I like to do. (snaps her fingers) Boss! Another drink for my friend here. I presume a champagne cocktail is sufficient? Good, mon.

COFFY: Go on and take this shot!
GROVER (Mwako Cumbuka): I can't; that'll kill me!
COFFY: Maybe it will and maybe it won't, but if it do, you gonna fly through them pearly gates with the biggest fucking smile St. Peter ever seen!

PRISCILLA (Carol Lawson): Now, listen. My old man's coming back any minute, and if SHE catches you here, she's gonna wanna kick your ass!

VITRONI (Allan Arbus): She's like a wild animal! I've got to have that girl, George! Tonight!

SUGARMAN (Morris Buchanan): Look over there. I got plenty of tail. I got more tail than I can handle. I even got white tail!

COFFY: You know just the words that turn me on. And I know what you want, too, and you're gonna get it.

COFFY: This is the end of your rotten life, you motherf*ckin' dope pusher!

COFFY: It was easy for him because he really didn't believe it was comin', but it ain't gonna be easy for you, because you better believe it's comin'!

COFFY: I'm gonna piss on your grave tomorrow!

BRUNSWICK: Black, brown, or yellow-I'm in it for the green!

Compiled by David Kalat

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Coffy (1973)

"They call her Coffy and she'll cream you!" screams the poster. They call her Coffy because her name is Ms. Coffyn (no first name is ever actually given), and because writer-director Jack Hill had once had a phone conversation with a woman who described herself as "coffee colored." The imagery stuck with him, until he found the chance to memorialize it as his heroine's name.

For all the "black power" and "black is beautiful" pride that drove the onscreen antics of films like this, Hill found it very hard to staff the off-screen production team with African-Americans. Longstanding prejudice in the industry had kept the ranks of talented black technicians low, and the few African-American crew members Hill did find were often inexperienced.

He hired Bob Minor as stunt coordinator, but Minor had to learn on his feet and didn't really come into his own until their next film together, Foxy Brown. At one point, the script called for Coffy to grapple with an enraged madam, but Minor wasn't able to find a sufficiently competent black stuntwoman to go at it opposite Grier (the star was one tough chick who was already adept at performing her own stunts). Hill rethought the scene to play down the stunts and emphasize the comedy.

In another memorable sequence, the white gangsters tie pimp King George (Robert DoQui) to the back of a car and drive off, dragging his body behind them until he dies from the trauma. Horrifyingly, such incidents have occurred in the real world all too often, with perhaps the most famous being the case of James Byrd, who was killed in just this way on June 7, 1998 in Texas-prompting a national debate about hate crimes.

The finale, set at the palatial digs of crime lord Vitroni (Allan Arbus), was actually filmed at Roy Rogers' house. In honor of the legendary cowboy, Hill had dressed up one of Vitroni's bodyguards in outrageous Western gear-that actor was then stricken with hepatitis and had to leave suddenly, so a different character took his place in some scenes. Allan Arbus, the actor playing the diminutive kingpin, is the former husband of storied photographer Diane Arbus.

Pam Grier auditioned for roles in Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction (1994), but didn't make it. Tarantino kept the actress in mind, though, and built Jackie Brown as a vehicle for her. That 1997 film was based on Elmore Leonard's book Rum Punch, which featured a white heroine named Jackie Burke. Tarantino rewrote the part for Grier, rechristening the character in honor of Grier's Foxy Brown role. Jackie Brown features a scene all but copied intact out of Coffy, reunited Grier with Coffy co-star Sid Haig, and had a soundtrack by Coffy's composer Roy Ayers. One part cinematic genius, one part fanboy love, Jackie Brown proved that after all those years, Ms. Grier was still a crowd-drawing superstar.

Compiled by David Kalat

SOURCES:
Jack Hill, commentary track on the MGM Coffy DVD.
Darius James, That's Blaxploitation, St. Martin's Griffin.
Colin Murphy, "She's Here, She's Grier," The Vital Voice.
Interview with Sid Haig, Psychotronic Video.
Gerald Martinez et al, What It Is...What It was!, Hyperion Books.

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