Looking back at Jack Hill’s Blaxploitation film, Coffy
Jack Hill’s anti-drug/vigilante movie Coffy originated when American International Pictures lost the rights to the film Cleopatra Jones and approached Hill to quickly produce a movie starring a black female lead in hopes of beating Jones to the box office. Coffy became a huge success, both financially and critically, earning far more than its competition and established Pam Grier as an icon of the genre and an idol for African American women everywhere.
At the time Jack Hill was a low-budget B-film auteur following in the footsteps of Roger Corman. He had already directed two “women in prison” films with Grier cast in small parts (The Big Doll House and The Big Bird Cage), but Coffy was Grier’s breakthrough role and Hill wrote Coffy with the actress specifically in mind. Just 24 years old at the time, the beautiful, busty and smart Grier carried the film with a devastating, voluptuous punch as the shotgun-toting heroine. Despite getting saddled with a preposterous Jamaican accent in one scene, Grier works her magic with the grindhouse-appropriate dialogue (“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!”).
Jack Hill was always a much better writer and director than most of his exploitation peers, and even if his films seemed awfully familiar, they were always incredibly entertaining. While Hill managed to fit in most of the genres clichés, Coffy rises above the rest with solid camera work, outrageous 70’s fashions, increasingly bizarre action sequences, violence, nudity, and performances that soared above the usual Blaxploitation brand. Coffy is sometimes outrageously silly (such as the over-the-top catfight between Coffy and a posse of escorts), and sometimes surprisingly brutal (the lynching of King George, who’s tied to the back of a speeding car), but despite all its exploitative elements, the film is notable in its depiction of a strong female lead, social commentary, racial politics, and also in its anti-drug message, a rarity for the time.