Coffy is at once a notable moment in female-empowerment cinema and a pervasive exercise in the objectification of women. It’s as if Gloria Steinem wrote a screenplay that was then handed off to Hugh Hefner to direct.
After appearing in a couple of women-in-prison pictures, Pam Grier broke out as Coffy, a nurse with a secret life of violent retribution. Seething over the way the illegal drug trade has ruined her family – including an 11-year-old sister who’s in a juvenile rehabilitation facility – Coffey masquerades at night as various prostitutes and junkies in order to get close enough to pimps and dealers to take them out. And that she does, often with a shotgun and almost always with a one-liner. (A sample: “I’m gonna piss on your grave tomorrow!”)
This certainly sounds like a galvanizing genre picture with a socio-political undercurrent. And there are elements – a visit to that rehab center, a speech about the white power structure, Grier in the lead – that support this reading. But mostly the movie is about breasts: Coffy’s, yes, as well as those of just about every other woman character who appears on the screen. In fact, a drinking game could be devised around the number of times and variety of ways the female characters’ tops pop off. It’s almost as if writer-director Jack Hill, an exploitation veteran, had someone on the set dedicated to loosening blouse buttons and bra straps. I’d call Coffy‘s view of women infantile, except that even infants know that their mothers offer things like comfort, protection and love in addition to their breasts.
The common defense of Coffy is that these very things – comfort, protection, love – are offered in the form of Grier. To be sure, she’s a more complicated figure than the other women in the film, to say nothing of women in other blaxploitation pictures. Like Richard Roundtree’s Shaft, she stands apart from most of the African-American characters that the movies of the 1970s offered. Neither a criminal nor a victim, she’s strong, independent and successful. That she’s a woman only defies convention further.
So why does Coffy undercut each of these facts by objectifying her in the same way it objectifies every other woman in the story? It goes beyond the narrative excuse that Coffy uses sex as a form of espionage or as a weapon. The movie merges Coffy’s physicality with her mission to such a degree that one becomes indistinguishable from the other. Are these righteous breasts, or breasts of righteousness? Can they really be both at once?
I’d be more inclined to answer yes if Coffy was at least a decently made movie, but it’s a mess. You could write this off to the low-budget nature of the blaxploitation genre, except that Shaft and Super Fly had already proven that cinematic poetry within these confines was possible. More than once in Coffy, the camera is so awkwardly handled that it feels as if someone must have bumped into the operator. At one point there is a silly chase sequence in which a car tries to run Coffy down by going in endless and illogical circles. Even the music – Roy Ayers composed and arranged the soundtrack – is less than impressive. (“Coffy Is The Color” ain’t no “Theme From Shaft.”)
Grier isn’t entirely the saving grace, either; as an actress, she still needed time to blossom. I realize she’s supposed to be “acting” in many of these scenes, as when she poses as a Jamaican prostitute, but we always see the effort, even when she’s playing a moment straight. In Coffy, we only get glimpses of the no-nonsense nobility that would come to full flower 25 years later, in Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown. If only Coffy gave us more glimpses of that side of Grier, and less glimpses of her breasts.