Love on the Shattered Lens: Coffy (dir by Jack Hill)


It may seem odd to describe Coffy as being a love story.

After all, this is a film that is perhaps best known for a scene in which Pam Grier (as Nurse Coffin, a.k.a. Coffy) shoots her lying boyfriend in the balls.  Coffy is often described as being the epitome of 70s grindhouse, a film in which Pam Grier takes on drug dealers, the Mafia, and a corrupt political establishment with a combination of shotguns and shanks.  Coffy is perhaps Grier’s best-known films and it features one of her best performances.  There’s nothing more empowering than watching Pam Grier take down some of the most corrupt, arrogant, and disgusting men to ever appear in a movie.  It’s a violent and gritty film, one that opens with a drug dealer’s head literally exploding and never letting up afterwards.  There are many different ways to describe Coffy but it’s rarely called a love story.

But here’s the thing.  A film about love doesn’t necessarily have to center around romantic love.  Coffy is about love but it’s not about any love that Coffy may have for her boyfriend, the duplicitous politician Howard Brunswick (Booker Bradshaw).  Instead, the love at the center of this film is the love that Coffy has for her sister, who died from a heroin overdose.  It’s her sister’s death that leads to Coffy first seeking revenge but that’s not the only love that motivates Coffy.  There’s also the love that Coffy feels for her community.  Throughout the film, we hear about how the black community is being destroyed by the drugs that are being pushed into their neighborhoods by white mafia dons like Arturo Vitronia (Allan Arbus, who was once married to the iconic photographer, Diane Arbus).  It’s not a random thing that, for all of Coffy’s anger, she saves her most savage revenge for the members of her community who are working with the white mobsters, men like the pimp, King George (Robert DoQui), and her own boyfriend, Howard.

Throughout the film, Coffy says that she feels like she’s “in a dream” and Pam Grier gives an intelligent performance that suggests that, even after her mission is complete, Coffy will never be the same.  She’s not a natural killer.  She’s a nurse and it’s her job to save lives.  But when she sets out to get revenge on those who killed her sister and who are destroying her community, Coffy shows no mercy.  When she violently interrogates another victim of the drug trade, Coffy shows the junkie no sympathy because sympathy isn’t going to solve the problem.  Coffy is determined and the reason why she succeeds is because none of her victims realize just how serious she is.  Coffy uses her beauty to distract them and then, when they aren’t looking, she strikes.  By the end of the film, she’s walking alone on the beach and the viewer is left to wonder what’s going on inside of her head.  After all the people that Coffy has killed, can she ever go back to simply working the night shift at the ER?  After you’ve seen life and death at its most extreme, can things ever go back to the way that they once were?

And listen, I’m generally a pacifist and I’m not a huge fan of real-life vigilante justice and I’ve signed many petitions against the death penalty but it’s impossible not to cheer for Coffy.  Pam Grier gives such a committed performance that it’s impossible not to get sucked into her mission.  (It helps, of course, that most of the people who she targets are legitimately terrible human beings.)  The brilliance of Grier’s performance comes in the quiet moments.  Yes, she’s convincing when she has to shoot a gun and she delivers vengeful one-liners with the best of them.  But the film’s best moments are the ones were Grier thinks about how her life has become a dream of violent retribution and where she allows us to see the love for her sister and her community, the same love that is motivating all of the bloodshed.

Coffy is a rightfully celebrated film.  For once, a cult film actually deserves its cult.  It’s one of the best of the old grindhouse films and, in fact, to call it merely an exploitation film actually does a disservice to how effective a film Coffy actually is.  It’s just a great film period.

Original Gangstas (1996, directed by Larry Cohen)


Original Gangstas opens with shots of the deserted streets and burned-out store fronts of Gary, Indiana and narration telling us how a once great American city came to be in such disrepair.  The steel plant closed and put much of the city out of work.  While the politicians and the police looked the other way, violent street gangs rose up and took over entire neighborhoods.  Now, Gary is a shell of its former self.  Even the local movie theater has closed down.  The narrators tells us that the last movie to play at the theater was Star Wars.

Led by Spyro (Christoper B. Duncan) and Damien (Eddie Bo Smith, Jr.), the Rebels are the most feared and powerful gang in Gary.  They rule through violence and intimidation.  Talk to the police and your business is liable to get torched and you’re likely to get shot.  However, Spyro and Damien have finally gone too far and now, two men who previously escaped from Gary are returning to town to dish out some justice.

John Bookman (Fred Williamson) is a former football player who wants to avenge the shooting of his father.  Jake Trevor (Jim Brown) is a boxer who once killed a man in the ring and who wants revenge for the death of his son.  When they were young men, John and Jake were the original Rebels and now they’re getting the old gang back together again.  With the help of Laurie (Pam Grier), Rev. Dorsey (Paul Winfield), Bubba (Ron O’Neal), and Slick (Richard Roundtree), the original gangstas are going to take back the streets of Gary.

Original Gangstas was released at a time when, largely thanks to the influence of Quentin Tarantino, people were just starting to feel nostalgic for the old blaxploitation movies.  The main appeal of the film, not surprisingly, is that it brings together so many of the great blaxploitation stars and sets them loose in what was then the modern era.  (Jim Kelly is missed.)  When John and Jake talk about how they’re responsible for the Rebels, they could just as easily be talking about how they’re responsible for both all of the independent crime films that came out in the wake of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction.

Original Gangstas is a tribute to both the Blaxploitation genre and the oversized personalities that made that era so memorable.  Neither Fred Williamson, Jim Brown, nor Richard Roundtree were particularly good actors but they all had so much screen presence and such an innate sense of cool that it didn’t matter whether they could convincingly show emotion or not.  (Original Gangstas gives all of the big dramatic scenes to Pam Grier, who was not only naturally cool but a damn good actress to boot.)  The minute Fred Williamson lights his cigar, he control the entire movie.  He and Jim Brown make a good team and Original Gangstas is an entertaining and violent trip down memory lane.

Robots With A Cause: Class of 1999 (1990, directed by Mark L. Lester)


The year is 1999 and John F. Kennedy High School sits in the middle of Seattle’s most dangerous neighborhood.  Teenage gangs have taken over all of the major American cities and just going to school means putting your life in danger.  However, Dr. Bob Forest (Stacy Keach!), the founder of MegaTech, has a solution.  He has taken former military androids and reprogrammed them to serve as educators.  JFK’s principal, Miles Langford (Malcolm McDowell!!), agrees to allow his school to be used a testing ground.  Soon, Miss Conners (Pam Grier!!!) is teaching chemistry.  Mr. Byles (Patrick Kilpatrick) is teaching gym.  Mr. Hardin (John P. Ryan) is teaching history.  When they’re not teaching, these robots are killing truant students and manipulating two rival street gangs into going to war.

Imagine mixing Rebel With A Cause with The Terminator and you get an idea of what Class of 1999 is like.  Two of the only good teenagers (played by Bradley Gregg and Traci Lind) figure out that the teachers are killing their classmates but they already know that they won’t be able to get anyone to listen to them because they’re just kids who go to school in a bad neighborhood.  Meanwhile, the teachers have been programmed to do whatever has to be done to keep the peace in the school.  Why suspend a disruptive student when you can just slam his head into a locker until he’s dead?  Director Mark L. Lester (who previously directed Class of 1984) is an old pro when it comes to movies like this and he’s helped by a better-than-average cast.  Any movie that features not only Stacy Keach and Malcolm McDowell but also Pam Grier is automatically going to be cooler than any movie that doesn’t.

When Class of 1999 was made, 1999 was considered to be the future and, in many ways, the movie did prove to be prophetic.  We may not have robot teachers (yet) but the idea of arming teachers and expecting them to double as cops has become a very popular one over the past few years.  Personally, I wouldn’t want to send my children to a school where the teachers all have to carry a gun while teaching but that may just be me.

Built For Speed: Richard Pryor in GREASED LIGHTNING (Warner Brothers 1977)


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Richard Pryor  (1940-2005) has been hailed as a comedy genius, and rightly so. But Pryor could also more than hold his own in a dramatic role. Films like WILD IN THE STREETS, LADY SINGS THE BLUES, and BLUE COLLAR gave him the opportunity to strut his thespic stuff, and GREASED LIGHTNING gave him top billing as Wendell Scott, the first African-American NASCAR driver. Pryor plays it straight in this highly fictionalized biopic about a man determined to break the color barrier in the predominantly white sport of stock car racing.

We see Scott returning to his rural Danville, VA hometown after serving in WWII.  He tells everyone he wants to drive a cab and someday open a garage, but his secret wish is to become “a champion race car driver”. He meets and falls in love with Mary (Pam Grier, who’s never looked more beautiful), and they eventually marry…

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All Star Exploitation: MACHETE MAIDENS UNLEASHED (Australian 2010)


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Tonight we celebrate baseball with MLB’s 90th annual All-Star Game, and… what’s that you say, Dear Readers? You don’t LIKE baseball?!? (*sighs, shakes head, mutters “must be some kinda Commies”*) Luckily for you, I’ve got an alternative for your viewing pleasure this evening. It’s an All-Star salute to the halcyon days of low-budget Exploitation filmmaking in the Philippines that lasted roughly from 1959 (Gerry DeLeon’s TERROR IS A MAN, with Francis Lederer and Greta Thyssen) to the early 80’s and the advent both of VHS, which effectively ended the Drive-In/Grindhouse Era, and political upheaval caused in part by Fernando Marcos’s imposition of martial law on the island nation.

1971’s “Beast of the Yellow Night”

This Australian-made documentary by writer/director Mark Hartley covers the wild, wild world of making Exploitation movies in the jungle on a shoestring budget through judicious use of clips, trailers, and interviews with the people who made…

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That’s Blaxploitation! 16: Pam Grier is SHEBA, BABY (AIP 1975)


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The Blaxploitation Explosion was beginning to wind down by 1975, but genre superstar Pam Grier had a few more aces left up her silky sleeve. One was SHEBA, BABY, a film that doesn’t get much love, probably due to its lower-then-usual budget restrictions, but I found it a more than passable entry, mainly because of Pam’s charisma. She carries the movie on her sexy shoulders and makes it watchable, budget be damned!

In this outing, we have gangsters terrorizing local Louisville, KY businesses, including Andy Shayne. Enter daughter Sheba, a Chicago PI who comes home just in time to help. The cops refuse to get involved, so when Andy’s gunned down by hoods, Sheba’s on the case, and there’s no stopping her from getting revenge on those creepy criminals…

Pam is again one bad sista, decked out in stylish 70’s fashions as she pursues the villains with aplomb. In fact…

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The TSL’s Grindhouse: Bucktown (dir by Arthur Marks)


Welcome to the town of Buchanan!

It’s a small Southern town, popularly known as Bucktown.  It’s a town where you can literally get anything, as long as you know who to pay off.  Upon arriving, don’t be surprised if a little kid approaches you and asks you what you’re looking for.  He can get it for you.  That kid had connections!

The population of Buchanan is almost entirely African-American but all of the cops are white.  Under the leadership of the redneck police chief (Art Lund), the cops have turned Buchanan into their own private kingdom.  If you want to do anything in Buchanan, you have to be ready to pay the cops for protection.  Refuse and you’ll get arrested.  Continue to refuse and you’ll probably end up getting shot.

Obviously, someone needs to clean up Buchanan?  But who!?

How about Duke Johnson (Fred Williamson)?  Duke’s brother owned the hottest nightclub in Bucktown, Club Alabama.  Or, at least he did until he announced he wasn’t going to pay anymore protection and he ended up getting gunned down by the cops.  When Duke arrives in town, he thinks that he’s just going to stay long enough to attend the funeral and sell his brother’s bar.  However, when Duke find out that he has to wait 60 days until he can sell the bar, he decides to stick around.  Not only does he move in with his brother’s former lover, Aretha (Pam Grier), but also reopens the Club Alabama.

Soon, the cops are coming around and demanding their share.  However, they quickly discover that no one tells Duke Johnson what to do.  Like all good action heroes, Duke has friends all over the country.  He places a call to Roy (Thalmus Rasulala) and soon, Roy, TJ (Tony King), and Hambone (Carl Weathers) show up in Bucktown.  They quickly wipe out the corrupt police force.  The local citizens are so happy that they make Roy the new police chief and his men the new police force.

Unfortunately, that turns out to be a mistake.  Apparently, giving some totally random dude complete and total authority to enforce the law in whatever he sees fit isn’t always the best way to handle things.  Roy and his men quickly become just as corrupt as the old redneck policemen.  The only thing protecting Duke is his friendship with Roy but even that is endangered when T.J. decides that he wants Aretha for himself.  T.J. decides to turn Roy and Duke against each other.  It all eventually leads to an epic fist fight, with the winner earning the right to remain in Bucktown…

(Of course, you may be wondering why anyone would want to remain in Bucktown as the place is kind of a dump, regardless of who’s in charge.)

Released in 1975, Bucktown is a pretty basic action film but I liked it because it appealed to all of my anti-authoritarian impulses.  There have been so many movies about what it takes to clean up a town but there haven’t been many made about what actually happens after all of the corrupt cops and greedy businessmen have been kicked out.  Thalmus Rusulala was great as the charismatic but dangerous Roy and Tony King, a favorite of Italian exploitation fans everywhere, was an effective villain.  Pam Grier doesn’t get to do much but she does the best with what she’s provided.  Of course, the entire film is dominated by Fred Williamson, who may not have been a great actor but who had an undeniable screen presence.  Williamson struts through the film like the hero of stylish Spaghetti western.

Bucktown is an entertaining 70s action film.  Though it doesn’t deeply explore any of the issues that it raises, it still deserves some credit for raising them.  If nothing else, it’s a film that shows why Fred Williamson retains a cult following to this day.