“Coffy” came on the scene at the right time. It was a movie that reversed the roles Black women played in “blaxploitation” movies. It also catapulted Pam Grier into stardom.
Grier was all that Black (and white) moviegoers could ask for. They longed for a heroine to counter Ron O’Neal, Jim Brown and Fred Williamson, who drew audiences with their machismo as Black men against the man.
In those films, Black women were merely sex symbols. Directors and studios served them up as eye candy for viewers who enjoyed the unabashed sexuality that was an intricate part of this 1970s genre.
“Coffy,” a cult classic that hit theaters across America 50 years ago, was, as one critic described it, “soft-core skin flick.” The critic was right, because the film had its sexual underpinnings.
For the movie, director Jack Hill found one of the finest women in Hollywood to play the star’s part, and the statuesque Grier played it to the hilt.
She stepped into a role where she had no choice but to take on the man. She was thrust into such a position because her older sister was a prostitute; her brother was drug addict; and her 11-year-old sister, who took a bad hit of smack, was dying in a hospital.
Narcotics were tearing Coffy Coffin’s family and her neighborhood asunder, as they seemed to do in many of the films made during this introduction of Black actors to the big screen.
Grier played a nurse who turned into an avenging angel. Wise to the streets and with an indomitable spirit, she was going to straighten this mess out, and if it demanded she used violence, as O’Neal, Brown and Williamson had done in their films, the shotgun-toting Grier wouldn’t shirk from it.
Advertisements for “Coffy” painted Grier’s character as “A chick with drive who don’t take no jive!”
She was that — and much more.
Indeed, Grier did kick butt and take names, and she performed with such realism that she created a pathway for more roles of this type. She followed “Coffy” with films like “Foxy Brown,” “Sheba, Baby” and “Friday Foster,” which featured blaxploitation regulars Yaphet Kotto, Scatman Crothers, Carl Weathers and Eartha Kitt.
Not all critics praised Grier’s character. They dissected her acting and found it wanting, but those same critics were more forgiving, or so it seemed, with males who played similar roles.
Yet even her critics couldn’t dispute this: Pam Grier, the sister of NFL star Rosie Grier, was Hollywood’s first female action hero.
“When I look back, I think those films and the others that followed said more about my spirit than my ability to kick the heck out of bad guys,” Grier said in 2012 interview for a Toronto television station. “I’m a child of the women’s movement. I always believed that I could do anything, that women didn’t have to be limited in any way.”
No one can argue that fact either, and anyone who tries just needs to explore the on-screen work of Whoopie Goldberg, Viola Davis, Cynthia Erivo and Letitia Wright in films of a more recent vintage.
Yet even they have to look at Grier’s performance in “Coffy” and applaud how her acting put a Black woman’s name on marquees in 1973 from sea to shining sea.