Coffy embarks on a spree of bloody vengeance against drug dealers, dirty cops, and corrupt politicians after her family become casualties of organized crime. Her older sister is a prostitute, her brother a coke addict and her younger sister, LuBelle, is brain-damaged as a result of contaminated drugs. The film begins with Coffy meting out her own brand of street justice with a sawn-off shotgun and a syringe to two drug dealers responsible for supplying LuBelle. At first Coffy is conflicted by her actions but when her childhood friend, and one good cop, Carter Brown, are violently attacked when Brown takes a stand against police corruption, by refusing to go on the take like his partner, McHenry, she is transformed into a vengeful femme fatale, wreaking a path of destruction and mayhem as she seeks justice for those close to her, and the black community as a whole. Disguising herself as a high-call Jamaican call girl (appropriately named Mystique), Coffy seduces her victims – including the pimp who supplied the heroin that left her sister brain-damaged, and the Head of the Mafioso – before bloodily dispatching them to the hereafter.
Coffy is generically part of the Blaxploitation movement that emerged at the beginning of the 1970s, with black independent films such as Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970) and Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971) before becoming assimilated into the mainstream with films such as Shaft (1971) and Super Fly (1972). While Blaxploitation films were generally misogynistic in their sexualization of women, who functioned merely as external signifiers of the black protagonist’s virility and potency, there was a female strand of the genre with strong feisty and sexually-liberated black women at the centre of the narrative, beginning with Coffy and including films such as Foxy Brown (1974) and Cleopatra Jones (1973). Coffy is a much more subtle and nuanced film than Hill’s follow-up Foxy Brown or, indeed, Cleopatra Jones (for which Grier was considered for the leading role) due to a combination of a relatively-tight narrative and a powerful lead performance. This is especially evident in the final confrontation between Coffy and her politician lover, Howard Brunswick (Booker Bradshaw), as Brunswick tries to justify his actions and betrayal of Coffy and the black community. Grier’s subtlety of expression provides a map of interiority articulating Coffy’s emotional conflict when faced with the extent of her lover’s deceit and deception.
While Coffy participates in many clichés of Blaxploitation – it is white society which is ultimately to blame, women, both black and white, are often objectified (the girl-on-girl fight scene is gratuitous by any standards and seems to be an excuse to show as many breasts as possible at one time) and black men are either pimps or hustlers obsessed with money, fashion and sex – it raises thoughtful questions around the relationship between societal oppression and criminal behaviour that go beyond the cliché by condemning rather than glamorizing drug culture. Coffy is black, bold and beautiful and, as the song lyrics at the film’s conclusion state, a ‘symbol of black pride’, which suggests affinities between the Black Power movement and second-wave feminism denied by male-orientated Blaxploitation cinema with its pimps and pushers and objectified women.
Studio/Distributor: American International Pictures
Director: Jack Hill, Producer: Robert Papazian
Screenwriters: Richard Fire, John McNaughton
Cinematographer: Paul Lohmann
Art Director: Perry Ferguson II
Composer: Roy Ayers Editor: Chuck McClelland
Duration: 91 minutes
Cast: Pam Grier, Roy Ayers, Robert DoQui
Directory of World Cinema: American Independent, Edited by John Berra, published by Intellect Books, Bristol, UK / Chicago, USA.