Film / Video Reviews
Aug 1, 1996, 19:56


THE BIG BIRD CAGE (1973); COFFY (1973); FOXY BROWN (1974), all written and directed by Jack Hill

I've got to admit that, if given the choice, I'd opt for a good exploitation film from the early to mid-1970s—the Golden Age of Exploitation—over a majority of the studio films released today. Despite the sub-par casts, clichéd writing, grainy footage, sloppy editing, and gratuitous violence and nudity (okay, that's why I watch) there's a purity of intent to these films, a fierce desire to please coming from in front of and behind the cameras.

Many people were perplexed at Miramax's curious decision earlier last year, under the Quentin Tarentino shingle, to re-release Jack Hill's Switchblade Sister, a dramatically flat picture that offered period camp but little else. Though it wasn't obvious from Switchblade..., writer/director Hill does have a gift, and it all comes together in the three films he wrote and shot with the beautiful and talented Pam Grier: The Big Bird Cage, Coffy, and Foxy Brown.

In The Big Bird Cage, Grier plays a woman named Blossom who, along with her boyfriend Django, knocks off a Filipino nightclub to finance a revolution (what the locals are revolting against we

never find out), then breaks into a prison run by a sadistic warden where she frees the multi-ethnic female population in a spectacular, burn-it-all-to-hell escape. Grier's indoctrination into the prison is memorable: on her first day in the outdoor mess tent, she tactfully asks her fellow inmates, “which one of you dykes thinks she runs this place?” When one of them asks her who she is, she says, “My name is Blossom, but that don't mean shit. All you have to know is that now I run this place. Any other questions?” A woman steps up and says, “Yeah. Where do you want to be buried... nigger?” Grier kicks her ass, then puts the period on the sentence: “And that's Miss Nigger to you, okay?”

If this is up your proverbial alley then rest assured that the remainder of the film delivers on the same level. Critics have called this a Roger Corman production of a feminist movie, but it is the kind of “feminist” movie where all the actresses wear cutoff hiphuggers and wet midriff shirts (when they're not cavorting in the group shower). From the distance of twenty-five years it's also strange to look at what was considered correct in 1972: racism is bad, but faggot jokes are okay (the guards are all giggling sissies and would rather French kiss a cobra than mess with any of the inmates). Along with Grier and the lovely Anitra Ford, The Big Bird Cage features another junkhead performance by long-suffering blaxploitation veteran Carol Speed and a wild turn by the great Sid Haig as the hippie adventurer Django.

Good as ...Bird Cage is, it is in 1973's Coffy where the Hill/Grier collaboration begins to hit its stride. Pam Grier stars in the title role of a woman seeking revenge on the drug dealers who got her little sister hooked on H. As the Roy “Ubiquity” Ayers soundtrack kicks in (“Coffy is the color of your skin/Coffy is the color of the world you live in...”) you know you're about to witness a classic of ‘70s blaxploitation. And the picture delivers like Karl Malone, coming at you with big Afros and big bellbottoms, righteous violence, a pimp named King George (Robert DoQui), and several scenes of Grier in all her And-God-Created-Pam glory (watching this film gives a two-word answer to anyone who's ever wondered why there's a pause button on the house remote: Pam Grier). With Sid Haig as Omar.

Foxy Brown (1974) is more of the same and nearly as good, with Grier playing a woman out to avenge the whyte boyz who took down her narc lover. (“The scene with Pam and her boyfriend in the hospital room,” says blaxploitation historian Darius James, “is one I still beat off to.”) Foxy Brown features a cool performance by the underrated Antonio “Huggy Bear” Fargas playing Grier's loser brother, a wah-wah heavy Willie Hutch soundtrack and Sid Haig as Hays.

-George Pelecanos

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