Wednesday, June 20, 2012
YEAR 1973: COFFY
As I noted in the BUTTERFLY essay, COFFY was Pam Grier's breakout film. Grier's "Coffy" is a nurse who becomes pissed at the drug trade after her brother dies of a drug overdose, so she goes after the gangsters with guns blazing.
Wikipedia relates this behind-the-scenes history:
"According to writer/director Hill, the project began when American International Pictures' head of production, Larry Gordon, lost the rights to the film Cleopatra Jones after making a handshake deal with the producers. Gordon subsequently approached Hill to quickly make a movie about an African American woman's revenge and beat Cleopatra Jones to market. Hill wanted to work with Pam Grier with whom he had worked on The Big Doll House (1971). The film ended up earning more money than Cleopatra Jones and established Grier as an icon of the genre.
Coffy is notable in its depiction of a strong female lead (a capable nurse), something rare in the genre at the time, and also in its then-unfashionable anti-drug message. It was remade in 1981, with an all-white cast, as Lovely But Deadly."
It's certainly interesting, if true, that AIP's COFFY was designed as a response to CLEOPATRA JONES, which was a more expensive-looking production by Warner Brothers, in that Coffy takes the opposite track: emphasizing the squalor and sleaze with which the heroine must contend. By comparison, federal agent Cleopatra Jones, as essayed by model Tamara Dobson, conveys a sense of being "above" all the drug-trafficking she battles. Coffy seems a more "everywoman" hero, particularly in the racial conflict conveyed by the film's end scene. For this reason she may have been acquired a broader appeal with a variety of audiences, though to be sure her period of action-film stardom ended when the "blaxploitation" craze petered out. Nevertheless, Grier remained an icon and, unlike Dobson, continues to work in films and television to the present day.
The Wikipedia excerpt has three problems. As I noted earlier, Grier isn't an especially significant character in 1971's BIG DOLL HOUSE, but she was one of the stars of 1972's BIG BIRD CAGE (also by Jack Hill). I suspect that film, not DOLL HOUSE, was a likely influence on the producers' deciding to give Grier an even more central role for COFFY.
In addition, while COFFY would seem to be the first femme-formidable within the blaxploitation genre, she wasn't the first of her kind, even in American cinema. Two films that may have influenced COFFY's rise to fame were 1971's GINGER, in which blonde Cheri Caffaro works with the government to expose a drug/prostitution ring, and 1972's HANNIE CAULDER, in which Raquel Welch takes up arms to avenge her rape by three outlaws.
Lastly, I've seen LOVELY BUT DEADLY, and I don't think it's a remake of COFFY. At most DEADLY might've swiped the basic plot of the "anti-drug crusader," but nothing else resembles the 1973 classic.