“Use what you got.” This lyric from the 1997 musical The Life was written by Ira Gasman, musicalized by Cy Coleman, and sung by the incredible Sam Harris. The show revolves around the sordid lives of hustlers, pimps, and prostitutes in the 1980’s. These three white men can’t pretend to represent a minority group. In fact, had the show been presented by a woman or a person of color, it’s very possible the show may never have seen the light of day. That’s the sad state of the society we live in. Still, the phrase “Use what you got” has a near universal application when it comes to all people.
The inequalities imposed upon minorities have forced many, many individuals and groups to become subservient to the powers that be. With a predominantly male-dominated society in charge, people of a different color and gender are forced into the role of a subordinate. Women, in particular, have suffered greatly at the hands of their male counterparts. Men often treat women as objects, second class citizens, or even sub-human, yet they also lust after women and hold them to impossible standards. Often, a woman’s only defense is her own sexuality. Writer/director Jack Hill always had a penchant for writing female leads who didn’t take any shit from men. They weren’t asexual. Far from it. They understood the innate power in the weaponization of sex. In Coffy (1973), Pam Grier plays the title role as a decent woman with a healthy sexual appetite who understands man’s inherent weakness. As she would in Foxy Brown (1974), Grier uses what she’s got to destroy the lives of evil individuals who sought to hurt the ones she cares about the most. In Foxy, she uses her stunning looks and desirous features as an asset. In Coffy, she is a temptress who uses her eroticism to lower men’s defenses and expose them as the weak-willed slime that they are. If Foxy’s sexuality is represented by a handgun, Grier’s sexuality in Coffy is more akin to a nuclear bomb.
The film cold-opens with a gloriously psychedelic door from which emerges Grover (Mwako Cumbuka, one of the attendants from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest). He’s got a strung-out chick in a car belonging to drug kingpin and self-professed pimp daddy Sugarman (Morris Buchanan) and wants to gift her to him. Sugarman scoffs, “I got more tail than I can handle. Hell, I even got white tail,” referring to the group of ladies sitting at his table. Still, Grover insists and once Sugarman gets a gander at Coffy spread out in his backseat, he’s instantly very interested in getting her “straight.”
Back at his apartment, Grover makes it weird by saying “I just wanna get high and watch” while prepping syringes full of that sweet, sweet heroin. Sugarman impatiently asks if Grover is “making a goddamn souffle?” The pulpy dialogue gets even better when he turns to find a shotgun pointed right at his face. “This is the end of your fuckin’ life, you motherfucker!” Coffy blows his head off in a wonderfully bloody explosion. Grover cowers in the corner, having already shot up and definitely having a bad time. Coffy forces him to take another big hit, effectively forcing him to commit suicide via OD.
Coffy has a bottomless supply of energy because she heads over to her job as a night nurse at the hospital. My wife worked the night shift for nearly three years. It’s brutal. While she takes a coffee break, her childhood friend Carter (William Elliott, Night of the Lepus), now a police officer, shows up to ask the doctor a few questions. He’s obviously still smitten with Coffy, but she’s involved with a rising figure in politics named Brunswick (Booker Bradshaw, prolific TV writer and the voice of the Centaur in the freaky 1987 Alice Through the Looking Glass). Still, Coffy needs a sympathetic ear since she committed murder only hours prior. Having seen Grier play a badass for so long, it’s a little jarring to find her so conflicted about her actions. One forgets that this film sits at the very beginning of her career as an iconic and liberated movie star who had no problem killing a large number of assholes. Carter drives Coffy to visit her sister Lubelle, who is currently in rehab. The reason behind her rampage against the drug dealers becomes clear since they got her little sister hooked on smack and she’s determined to make them suffer. Hill uses flash cuts to show Coffy’s inner struggle as she thinks about the gruesome murders she perpetrated.
She meets up with Brunswick at a bizarre strip club where a woman is surrounded by flames while she dances sensuously. A weird-looking guy, Aleva (John Perak), with an eyepatch built-in to his glasses, gets super pissed when a souvenir photographer happens to catch him in her lens. We get our first bit of random nudity as he snatches the film and tears open her blouse. Coffy charms the pants off of Brunswick’s friend, a law enforcement official that has to leave since “he’s got hippies to beat up.”
The film’s attitude toward sex as an enjoyable experience is quite refreshing. So often, it’s depicted as either a means to an end or an act which causes psychological damage. Seeing Coffy and Brunswick post-coitus through a fish tank walking around naked in a living room feels realistic. I always find it very annoying when people in movies immediately have to get dressed just because the filmmakers are trying to avoid a ratings problem. The top brass wants Carter to run for Congress and he shrugs off Coffy’s desire to go on vacation in order to focus on his election.
Before her shift, a random white guy bothers her and Carter, like a guardian angel, runs him off. Later at his apartment, he reveals himself to be an honest cop who doesn’t take bribes. Soon after, two thugs break in and nearly beat him to death while also injuring Coffy. One of them literally stops to feel her up just to up the ante on their perverse sadism. Carter suffers severe brain damage and “he may be able to go to the bathroom by himself one day.” The attack on Carter pushes Coffy over the edge.
She tracks down a prostitute whose face she sewed up at the hospital. Priscilla (Carol Locatell, the insane Ethel from Friday the 13th Part V), clues her in to how it works in the hooker game. King George (the amazing Robert DoQui, probably best known as Sgt. Reed in the RoboCop movies but also several Robert Altman films and Miracle Mile) is the pimp of all pimps and has quite the wardrobe. A mobster named Arturo Vitroni (M.A.S.H. actor Allan Arbus, also Diane Arbus’ husband) is the man behind the man running the entire show. He’s into some freaky shit, according to Priscilla. Things quickly turn sour as she and Coffy start a brawl which ends up involving Priscilla’s “old lady” Harriett (Dea St. Lamont), who’s framed in the doorway like a goddamn monster.
King George has his own honest-to goodness theme song and shows up looking like a spokesman for Sunny Delight or at least King Chester Cheetah. The more exotic the piece of ass, the more likely he’ll be to use her, so Coffy busts out a Jamaican accent and lounges by the pool in a skimpy bathing suit. Like she does in Foxy with the similarly flamboyant dresser Miss K, she doesn’t mince words: “I don’t do no leather work, mahn. I am the very best. Just plain sex.”
There’s a prostitute pajama party going on back at the King’s pad, where his top lady, or bottom bitch, to use a crude term, Meg (Linda Haynes, Rolling Thunder, Guyana Tragedy) eagerly wishes to bed her main squeeze. She’s disappointed and oddly confused that he wants to give the new girl, Grier, whom he names Mystique well before Jennifer Lawrence was even born, a once-over. Does Meg think King George only dresses like a pimp to be a fashion icon? Wouldn’t she find it weird that one of her fellow roommates’ meeting with a client will be “only a blow job in his office.”? You knew what you were signing on for, Miss Pretty.
There’s a huge soiree with a tiny amount of finger food for so many damn guests. King George’s driver and bodyguard Studs (Bob Minor, major stuntman and later Oscar in Foxy Brown) has to take a ton of shit from one of Vitroni’s henchman, Omar. Of course, Jack Hill has to pull out the big guns when he needs a dynamic actor to play a real prick, so who does he get? Why, his favorite actor Sid Haig, that’s who! Omar relentlessly needles Studs, who pokes him back. Omar: You need a manicure, Studs. Studs: You need a shine.
I’m assuming a sign reading ‘No Bras Allowed’ was somewhere in the back since the ensuing catfight features a toxic mix of hair pulling and dress tearing. Meg is super jealous of the attention Coffy is getting, so she intentionally spills some drinks all over her. Retiring to the bedroom, Coffy replaces the King’s drug supply with sugar and then booby traps her hair with razors. A massive fight breaks out between Coffy and the King’s other ho’s, much to the delight of Vitroni. He wants her bad.
She hides a gun inside a stuffed lion on her way to her rendezvous with Vitroni. Why a lion and why no one finds that suspicious, I will never know. The soundtrack slows things down: “Coffy, baby...sweet as a chocolate bar…” Diminutive Vitroni is into power games. The dialogue here gets pretty lurid and pulpy. Coffy: “I’m told you’re a dangerous man, Arturo. I like that.” Vitroni: “Get on your knees.” She really lays it on thick when she begs to have his “white body.” Busting out a revolver before it gets even weirder, she’s ambushed by one of Vitroni’s other henchman, Jake (Ray Young, Blue Sunshine), who recognizes her as Carter’s friend. It turns out he and Omar were the masked men that attacked the two of them that night. Jake will inexplicably disappear from the film as Young was being treated for hepatitis and Lee De Broux replaced him as a completely different henchman. Omar’s clever and sees that Coffy’s revolver is no “Saturday night special.” She thinks fast and claims King George sent her to kill Vitroni. Aleva shows up and figures out that Coffy is Brunswick’s girlfriend. It’s wonderfully convoluted and gets extremely messy as the gangsters jump to some major conclusions, figuring she’s part of a bigger plan involving several other participants.
An outstanding scene follows where King G, carrying a gold cane and looking like he’s headed to the pimp PGA Tour, gets into the backseat with Omar and Jake. The acting and writing here are really quite brilliant because George has no idea he’s a dead man and the henchman are extremely giggly about the prospect of killing him but also find it odd that the King is acting so cool. Finally, it all comes crashing down and King George is killed in a brutal and very protracted sequence. They place a noose around his neck and tie it to the car. Dragging him along, the scene goes on for much longer than you’d expect until they finally untie what’s left of the bloody mess that was once KG.
Omar has no sympathy for Coffy’s water requests, but she’s got plans for him. She sharpens a nail while locked inside a shed and places it in her hair. It’s very unfortunate that styles have changed so much since nowadays it would be exceedingly difficult for a heroine to hide weapons in her hair without at least a perm. Brunswick is busy doing some campaigning in a local park, pontificating on the plight of his fellow brothers and sisters. We pull back and it’s all fake, with a camera crew filming a phony political ad. Aleva shows up to escort Brunswick to a big pow-wow. It turns out he’s part of a huge conspiracy between the police, the mob, and the local government. When he sees Coffy, he coldly dismisses her, only concerned for his own survival. He definitely regrets calling her “some bitch I fuck,” but he makes it clear he’s “in it for the green.” The others believe him and drive Coffy away to kill her.
First, they shoot her up with King George’s stash, which happens to be the stash she replaced with sugar. I’m not entirely sure how she could’ve known any of this was going to happen and it’s unclear what her endgame was as far as the heroin-sugar swap goes, but since it’s sugar, she doesn’t get high. I did check with my wife, who is a doctor, and she says although heroin is not exactly healthy to put in your veins, she says directly shooting sugar into your bloodstream would not be a pleasant experience. In fact, it would be like rubbing salt in a wound, but much worse. With nothing left in her arsenal but sex, she comes on to Omar, who decides to have one last hump before bumping her off. “Goddamn zippers!” he yells as he tries to get his pants down. She stabs him with the nail and runs off. The dirty cop chases her down into a junkyard, but isn’t much of a driver. The scene is a little silly, with the car clearly driving very slowly in order to give Grier time to get away. She disables him by throwing a rock at the windshield, causing him to crash and then burn up. She pulls a shotgun out of the car before it explodes.
She sweet-talks a douchebag white guy into giving her a ride and grabbing them some “juice” from a liquor store. He’s a very trusting soul because he leaves his keys in the ignition, which she promptly uses to steal the car, drive back to her last location, picks up the shotgun from behind a bush, and head back to Vitroni’s house. Aleva gets it the worst as he’s annihilated when Coffy drives right through the front of the house. She guns down the rest, including Vitroni, who flounders in the pool like a pussy.
She tracks Brunswick down to his beach house, where we get a quietly powerful scene. Coffy can hardly believe how much she’s been through, describing it as some kind of dream. Her former beau apologizes and pleads with her to give him another chance. For a moment, it seems as though she’s on the verge of being convinced, but then a half-naked white chick appears at the top of the stairs. Bang! Say goodbye to your balls, Brunswick. She strides down the beach, exhausted but triumphant.
Coffy was essentially the coming-out party for Pam Grier as a movie star. AIP executive Larry Gordon had lost the opportunity to make Cleopatra Jones (1973), so Hill was brought on to rush a similarly-themed project to theatres. Pre-empting Jones, the film did shockingly well and established both Hill and Grier as major fixtures in the Blaxploitation movement.
If one had to pick, Hill is probably a stronger writer than he is a director. His dialogue is rude and crude, but also fast and funny. He knows what people want and he presents violence and nudity at a rapid and frequent pace. His direction doesn’t usually get particularly flashy, but that merely allows the actors to shine. Credit editor Chuck McClelland, who would return for Foxy Brown, to make sure the action stayed loose.
The cinematography isn’t anything to write home about, but that shouldn’t take away from the fine job DP Paul Lohmann, who would follow up his work on Coffy with an astonishing run of both great movies, California Split, Nashville, High Anxiety, Time After Time, North Dallas Forty, Lust in the Dust, and even an iconic bad one, Mommie Dearest. One thing to point out: There are bad movies whose production values render them nearly incomprehensible. Then there are bad films which look fine and the craftsmanship behind the camera couldn’t be better. He’s the type of DP who just showed up and shot what the director wanted. It’s not his fault if the performances he captured on celluloid turn out to be legendarily bad.
Pam Grier’s heroic performance provided a lift for African-Americans who needed to see one of their own kick some ass. Sure, Shaft had already been around for a couple of years, but she proved that Blaxploitation was so much more than a man’s world.