Foxy Brown (1974)
People try to pit Jack Hill and Larry Cohen against each other. These two legendary writer/directors were instrumental in the evolution of the Blaxploitation movement begun by Melvin Van Peebles and elevated by Gordon Parks. Other directors, including Parks’ son, Gordon Parks Jr., George Armitage, Michael Campus, Bruce Clark, Jack Starrett, and Jonathan Kaplan continued the tradition of the wildly entertaining, if slightly damaging films meant to highlight the African American experience in a changing American landscape. I absolutely see why Blaxploitation gets a bad rap for negative stereotyping. There’s no defending it beyond taking solace in the positive portrayals these movies also presented of black people rising up and fighting back against their often-white oppressors. Sophisticated relationships between black adults was not a common sight on film, so many audiences were enthralled and inspired by seeing people of their own color play more than servants or slaves. Many of the participants in these films have praised Blaxploitation movies for providing work for hundreds of people who otherwise never would have dreamed of making it in the film industry.
The main difference between the work of Hill and Cohen is quite simple. While Cohen often wrote strong male leads in films like Bone and Black Caesar, Hill specialized in strong female leads, particularly in his collaborations with the great Pam Grier. Beginning with the unexpected success of The Big Doll House (1971), they’d work together again on The Big Bird Cage (1972). Coffy (1973) and Foxy Brown (1974) would represent two sides of the same coin, with Grier playing a woman who lusts for revenge after suffering major tragedies. Although the two characters are not the same, they share a similar spirit and drive to take down those who’ve wronged her.
The familiar AIP logo fades away and a day-glo version of the iconic actress springs to life, revealing our heroine provocatively staring into the camera. A transition into a wonderfully creative title sequence follows with silhouettes and triplicates of Grier doing various dances while Willie Hutch’s funky theme song plays. There’s even a credited choreographer for the main titles, so you know they put in some effort here. This sequence and even the character have been influential throughout the years, notably in films like Superbad (2007), which copied the opening titles, and Austin Powers in Goldmember (2002), where Beyonce’s character name happens to be Foxy Cleopatra, a clear mix of Grier’s character name and Tamara Dobson’s in Cleopatra Jones (1973). A quick shot of Foxy firing a gun at the camera and we’re in territory familiar to anyone who’d seen Coffy the year before: a car prowling the streets at night. Incidentally, this was supposed to be a sequel entitled Burn, Coffy, Burn!, but tensions arose between Hill and AIP along with a last-minute decision to present it as a standalone feature. Still, as a spiritual sequel, it all works.
Dope pusher Link, played by Huggy Bear himself, the great Antonio Vargas, is nervously trying to evade the pursuit of two well-dressed white dudes. He stops at a hot dog stand and inexplicably orders a taco. Why would you order a taco at a hot dog stand?! The men begin to converge, but a couple of cops show up and the straight-laced white guys have to play it cool. In a Blaxploitation movie, that’s nearly impossible. This temporary lull gives Link the chance to call his sister Foxy (Grier) and tell her “two big motherfuckers” are after him. They even have brass knuckles. Fuck! Link tries to stall the cops by praising the coffee at the hot dog stand, imploring them to treat themselves. I can’t help but feel bad for the proprietor of the stand. It probably made his day when Link complimented his coffee. Too bad that smile quickly faded when he realized what was really going on.
Link jumps into Foxy’s car through the sunroof and she runs down the big motherfuckers. Later, he thanks her: “You saved my beautiful black ass.” He runs a numbers game as well and unfortunately owes a loan shark twenty grand. He needs to sell drugs to make the money back but his suppliers are the ones who are after him. When Foxy chastises Link for dealing drugs, he launches into an epic monologue: “Foxy, I'm a black man, and I don't know how to sing, and I don't know how to dance, and I don't know how to preach to no congregation. I'm too small to be a football hero, and too ugly to be elected mayor. But I watch TV and I see all them people and them fine homes they live in and all them nice cars they drive and I get all full of ambition. Now, you tell me what I'm supposed to do with all this ambition I got?” Both Coffy and Foxy Brown take a very moral stance against drug use, which is only used by the bad guys.
While Link stays at Foxy’s place, she visits her boyfriend Dalton Ford (Terry Carter, Colonel Tigh on the original Battlestar Galactica), who is recovering from facial reconstruction surgery. For two years, he’s been working undercover for the Bureau of Narcotics in an attempt to bring down the drug and prostitution empire of Katherine Wall (another Jack Hill favorite, the late Kathryn Loder). Although no one went to jail thanks to jury tampering, Wall’s organization has it out for Ford. Despite his bandages, which Foxy refers to as Christmas wrap, Foxy finds him irresistible and turns him on big time. Although Foxy Brown isn’t as sexually charged as Coffy, she still wants to give him “a taste of honey.” A large nurse arrives to put a stop to all that foolishness, smacking him in the dick for good measure.
The doctor from The Manitou (1978), Jon Cedar, unwraps Dalton’s face while an agent gives him new identity cards. His new name is Michael and I have to question how loosey-goosey the hospital was about their rules in the 70’s. “Michael” wants to take a walk with Foxy and they just let him go, which would normally be a huge liability. Hell, I’ve been in the hospital for very minor ailments and you know they wheeled me out of there.
Foxy and Michael see a crippled drunk named Oscar (Bob Minor, a great stuntman and actor, Commando, JD’s Revenge, Unlawful Entry) who turns out to be part of a vigilante group that acts as an extreme version of the Neighborhood Watch Association. He and his fellow badasses take down a criminal and dispense justice their own way. It’s an action-packed scene that even gains an onscreen audience as we see a large group of people just watching the scene as it’s shot. The stunts in Foxy Brown are a ton of fun and no wonder. If there’s any group that Jack Hill clearly had an affinity for, it’s stunt people since the supporting cast is riddled with them.
Foxy and Michael make love and before they leave, they run into Link. There’s something familiar about Michael to him and he finds an article with Dalton Ford’s face. He does a little doodling and figures out who “Michael” really is. Desperate to get back into the good graces of Miss Katherine, he proves himself to be a shitty person and an awful brother by letting the very thugs who were chasing him (Tony Giorgio - Bruno Tattaglia in The Godfather, and Fred Lerner - another talented stuntman) know where Dalton is. Miss Katherine, with a bizarre half-British accent, gives the go-ahead to take out this mystery man. Michael is gunned down right in front of Foxy, who’s upset for a few moments before that sadness turns to rage.
She forces her way into the apartment of Deb (Sally Ann Stroud), Link’s girlfriend, after we find him humming “back in the saddle” while he bags heroin. She fires the small gun Michael gave her right by his head and towers above Link. She gets some info, then absolutely trashes the apartment. These are the kind of moments that make you stand up and cheer for Pam Grier. She made it clear in interviews that she treated these roles with the utmost respect and took acting classes to make certain she’d be the best she could be.
The film jumps right into Foxy infiltrating Miss K’s call girl operation under the alias Misty Cotton. Pam Grier is so strikingly gorgeous that even a hard woman like Miss Katherine raises an intrigued eyebrow at the sight of her. It’s always satisfying when a movie claims a star is beautiful or handsome and it doesn’t seem outlandish or exaggerated. A modeling agency is the front for the prostitution ring, but Foxy gets right to the point, saying she’ll do anyone if the money is right. Later, while Miss K criticizes and belittles the various strumpets on her payroll, Foxy catches the eye of K’s number two, Steve (Peter Brown, Lawman, Kitten with a Whip), whose good looks melt Miss K’s cold heart but causes her to be deeply jealous. Since Foxy is literal perfection, she takes her aggression out on the other ladies, saying one looks haggard and a super skinny chick needs to lose weight. Foxy and another lady of the night, Chloe, whose real name is Claudia (Juanita Brown), are told very clearly regarding their client, “I want that fat toad drooling in his pants.” Claudia’s husband shows up along with her son and informs her that they’re moving away. He invites her along and we discover that these women are more prisoners than employees. The goons beat the man up and kick him out. Chloe downs a handful of pills on the drive over while Foxy tells Chloe to follow her lead.
The client for the evening is a Judge Fenton (Harry Holcombe, King Kong vs. Godzilla - US scenes, Empire of the Ants, as well as a Countrytime Lemonade spokesperson), a perfect example of a gross old white man. Miss K and her associates need a couple of dealers who’ve been arrested to get off, so they’re using the ladies to get the judge to forget that whole drug thing. There’s a fabulously funny exchange between Foxy and Fenton, making legal jargon and courtroom banter sound totally dirty. Ignoring her own client, Foxy takes the judge, along with Chloe, into the bedroom. They first start to list all of the terrible things the criminals have done, insult his puny manhood, then shove him out the door into a hallway with no pants on, where he’s beaten by some old ladies for being a pervert.
The judge throws the book at the two convicted men, which pisses Miss K and Steve off to no end. They put the word out to find Foxy and Chloe. The two end up at a lesbian bar, where the bartender (Mary Foran) rats them out and a local tough played by the great stuntwoman Jeannie Epper tries to keep them there, bragging that she’s a black belt. Epper tries to tangle with Foxy by putting up her dukes, fisticuff-style, and Foxy simply picks up a stool and smashes it on her. “I got my black belt in bar stools!” A huge fight breaks out, which is a little confusing since Chloe and Foxy fight back, but some others in the background fight each other. One yells “Get off my hair, bitch!” Imagine if Foxy had Coffy’s idea of putting razor blades in her afro. Chloe gets away and although Foxy slashes one of the goons, they get her. She avoids getting scarred, but after some light torture and discovering her true identity, she’s sent to “The Ranch.” What’s rather amusing is Miss Katherine’s response to this new information. She must have assumed that this was some sort of major power play by a competitor, but it’s merely a revenge plot. “It’s just that simple,” she says, to which Foxy replies “Game ain’t over yet, bitch.”
Jack Hill really puts Pam Grier through the ringer in these movies. Chloe had alluded to “The Ranch” as being punishment for women who don’t “do their job,” and for the really bad ones, they’re sent to an island where the clientele are less refined and have more “exotic” and dangerous sexual tastes. The dialogue gets shockingly nasty and very offensive here as the two redneck dope suppliers, Brandi (H.B. Haggerty, imposing former wrestler and Sgt. Smith in Rad) and Slauson (Boyd Red Morgan, another prolific stuntman who often played uncredited tough guys in movies like Batman and Dirty Harry) are two horribly racist and violent pieces of work. Slauson swings his whip around Foxy’s neck after she tries to escape. They’re keeping her high on heroin and Brandi even rapes her in a grotesque and disturbing scene. I admit that I thought she’d fend him off, but nope. It happens, off-camera, thankfully.
In a badass scene, Foxy is able to snag a razor by literally using her tongue to drag it closer. She gets free, bends some wire hangers and fills a bucket full of gasoline. Brandi is singing some insanely sexist and weird song while working under a car. I expected her to somehow crush him with the car, but instead, we get to see Slauson slashed in the face with the wire hangers and Brandi get doused with gasoline. When he identifies what he’s been sloshed with, Foxy triumphantly says “You know it, motherfucker.” She lights them both on fire and watches the house burn.
Miss Katherine, looking fabulous in a pink hat, moodily looks out the window as her boy toy Steve tries to placate angry dealers who won’t be getting their supplies since the ranch burned down. Steve makes a very simple request: “I want you to get me a sawed-off shotgun. We’re gonna kill us a couple of niggers.” Wow, what a fucking asshole.
They track down Link, who’s boning Deb in between snorting lines, under the guise of dropping off another key. Link has half-a-brain and leaves the chain locks on the door, but bolt cutters suddenly pop in and...snip-snip. He gets shot and flops around like a fish. Deb gets her throat cut and blood drains out of her like a bottle of strawberry Hershey’s syrup.
Foxy finds Oscar and his crew. Although they’re skeptical and reluctant, she delivers a stirring monologue about justice and people being bought and sold that convinces them to help her. Earlier in the film, Oscar had explained that they were essentially a group against societal slavery, so this cuts to the core for them. A plan is set in motion.
We were all waiting for Sid Haig to show up, and here he is, in all his glory. He plays Hays, the supply pilot for Miss K. In a bar, she gives him a longing look and he certainly has a way with words, telling the bartender to “get this dusky young lady whatever she needs to quench her magnificent thirst.” She plays it beautifully coy, twirling her hair as she tricks him into bringing her along on his latest drop-off. The scene in the cockpit, “I gotta find a place to land this motherfucker!” is so much fun. They’re clearly old friends and their chemistry is undeniable. Meanwhile, Oscar’s truck is stopped by dirty cops, one of whom calls him a ‘spook.’ Oscar does the “yassuh” bit for a few moments before they storm out with shotguns.
While Hays does the exchange, Foxy starts the plane engine and drives it around, slicing one of the goons into shreds. I’m glad she didn’t try to fly it. I’m willing to believe she could figure out how to drive the thing, but if she had flown it, that would’ve been unrealistic. She crashes the plane into a shed and her posse surprises Steve when he finds a couple of them dressed as cops during his attempted escape. They pull his pants down and one of them pulls out a huge knife.
Later, Foxy lets herself into Miss K’s abode, where she’s accosted by Eddie, who feels her up. “Don’t pinch the fruit, faggot.” Damn! She gives them a bag containing a weird-looking pickle jar. “It’s a present from your faggot boyfriend.” Miss K quickly figures out what’s inside and drops it, screaming. We all know Steve wouldn’t want to live without his favorite toy. Foxy pulls a gun out of her afro and plugs the goons. She disables Miss K with a shot to the arm and when Miss K asks for death, Foxy sinisterly intones “Death is too easy for you. I want you to suffer, bitch.” She gets in a waiting car. “Party’s over.” Quick zoom into a close-up, credits.
Foxy Brown moves along at a fast clip, maybe too fast. I’d be willing to believe either Jack Hill respected his audience enough to skip over boring exposition or there simply wasn’t enough money to film scenes that might have expanded on some character development. His screenplay is economical but also very funny, with nearly every scene either having some comedic dialogue or shocking insults.
Producer Buzz Feitshans has had quite a career. Son of Oscar-nominated editor Fred Feitshans (Wild in the Streets), he specialized in big action pictures. He’d produce most of John Milius’ work, including the great Dillinger, Big Wednesday, Conan the Barbarian (the only good Conan film), and Red Dawn, as well as an amazing mix of big-budget actioners like the first three Rambo films, Total Recall, Tombstone, and the underrated Extreme Prejudice. He’d even dip his toe into darker territory with Paul Schrader’s Hardcore and the hilariously bad Richard Rush film, Color of Night. His career would be made by producing Coffy and Foxy Brown.
Jack Hill was initially against the costumes in this film, believing their colorful extremes would date too quickly, but he’s come to accept them and they really are fabulous. Credit goes to experienced designers Lynette Bernay and James M. George, but also Ruthie West, the stylist for many musical groups and Pam Grier’s personal costumer. The amazingly-named DP Brick Marquard shot many TV episodes as well as Peter Bogdanovich’s excellent Directed by John Ford (1971). The colors here are garish, but they look great and as Nathan Lane once said, “One does want one hint of color.” It seems as though the war between television and films was alive and well because another veteran of TV, editor Chuck McClennand, cut many shows but only seemed to work on low-budget B-pictures. He does a solid job of keeping the narrative moving smoothly.
Foxy Brown, and to a large extent Pam Grier herself, may have received criticism for her uncompromising and brave work here and throughout her long career, but as the undisputed queen bee of an entire movie subgenre, she was responsible for taking those crucial first steps. By being a strong and powerful woman on screen, she inspired others to tell their own stories and refuse to be victims. She is an icon with a capital ‘I.”