Classic Corner: Foxy Brown

“That’s my sister, baby, and she’s a whole lotta woman,” bemoans Antonio “Huggy Bear” Fargas’ dim-bulb dope dealer, bleeding from the ear and crying to his mystified white mistress after Pam Grier has just shot up and otherwise trashed their drug den. It’s the first of many applause lines in director Jack Hill’s shamelessly entertaining 1974 Foxy Brown (now streaming on Amazon Prime), he and Grier’s frisky follow-up to their surprise smash Coffy, which turned the voluptuous beauty into a butt-kicking, Blaxploitation icon. Half-remake, half-victory lap, the film was originally intended as a sequel to be titled Burn, Coffy, Burn! but was hastily re-written in ways that don’t always entirely make sense, showcasing a more playful side of the star’s screen persona. 

A former switchboard operator at Roger Corman’s American International Pictures, Grier parlayed a supporting role in Hill’s Philippines-shot, women-in-prison opus The Big Doll House into top billing for its deliriously disreputable follow up, The Big Bird Cage. You can see a star being born the moment another inmate calls her the n-word and gets walloped by Grier, who flattens the racist and replies, “That’s Miss N**ger to you!” In a genre where women – especially minority women – were constantly subject to all sorts of abuse, Pam Grier wasn’t putting up with any crap. She was a fox who fought back, but what made her even more fun to watch is how much she looked like she was enjoying it. With her athletic exuberance and that crooked curl of her naughty smile, Pam Grier always seemed to be having an even better time than you were watching her. It’s why crushes on her are still so contagious. 

Despite telling pretty much the same story, Foxy Brown feels like a much sunnier, sillier movie than the gritty, at times despairingly downbeat Coffy. Grier’s once again out for revenge, this time after her undercover cop boyfriend gets gunned down (ratted out by her no-good brother) and again finds herself infiltrating an underground call-girl ring, this one run by a cartoonishly evil madam (Kathryn Loder) who fixes court cases by supplying sex workers to judges. The more frivolous tone is set by the buoyant beats of Willie Hutch’s soundtrack and a dazzling array of fabulous fashions designed by Ruthie West, who outfitted musical acts like Thelma Huston and the Jackson 5. There are something like 14 costume changes for Grier in the 92-minute movie, reportedly over the objections of director Hill, who includes a slyly self-parodic scene at Loder’s lair in which several characters critique the clingy couture.  

A fascinating figure that Quentin Tarantino once called “the Howard Hawks of exploitation movies,” Hill got his start cobbling together nudies for Corman alongside his UCLA classmate Francis Ford Coppola (rumor has it the ending of Apocalypse Now was inspired by Hill’s student film.) Mentored by the trailblazing female filmmaker Dorothy Arzner, Hill liked to smuggle not-so-subtle feminist messaging and political speeches into his raunchy romps. He told DAZED magazine in a 2014 interview, “As long as you put the elements in there that producers like Corman knew they could sell, such as sex and violence, you could raise the picture a little bit higher than they expected and give the audience something intelligent to chew on.”

Foxy Brown dutifully observes audience expectations – the first time we see Grier she immediately disrobes and marches her gargantuan bosom directly into the lens – but also upends a lot of prevailing stereotypes. Women are way more powerful than any man in this picture, most of whom are easily led into ruin by their libidos. During one of the most memorable interactions, Foxy gets fixed up with a lusty judge and spends the whole scene mocking his tiny member. “I’ve heard of a meat shortage but that’s ridiculous,” she sighs, accusing his honor of attempting to assault her “with a not-so-deadly weapon.” It’s the kind of movie in which before finally facing off with Loder, Grier presents the madam with a pickle jar containing her boy-toy’s severed penis.

Blaxploitation movies of the era often overly glamorized the pimps and pushers who were preying on the community, but Hill’s films with Grier have an almost ferocious moral severity. These are bad dudes and she’s bringing them down, by any means necessary. Admittedly, there’s a lot of things about these pictures that wouldn’t fly today. Foxy’s penchant for a certain homophobic f-slur has aged especially poorly, and there’s a queasy sequence in which she’s shot up with smack and sold into sex slavery on a ranch that, like the lynching scene in Coffy, flirts with some pretty ugly American iconography. But then again, exploitation movies are by definition supposed to be exploitative, and the roughhousing approach to sex and violence is what allows them to get away with the sometimes-scathing social commentary. Besides, given the gusto of Grier’s performance there’s never any doubt that this whole lotta woman will prevail above them all. 

“Foxy Brown” is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video (alongside “Coffy.”)

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