Foxy Brown, directed by exploitation master Jack Hill, comes relatively late in the Blaxploitation cycle of the early 1970s, a string of films which began in 1971 with Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song and Shaft before fizzling out mid-decade with various Rudy Ray Moore epics and the likes of Al Adamson’s ludicrous Black Samurai. It’s not quite top-notch but it is certainly very typical of the more professional films in the subgenre and is very satisfying entertainment, motored by a powerhouse performance from Pam Grier.
Originally intended to be a sequel to Coffy, a 1973 hit teaming Jack Hill with Pam Grier, Foxy Brown features Grier as a the eponymous heroine. Although she’s not Coffy in this movie, Foxy is very similar to the nurse in the earlier film who brought down vengeance on the men who turned her sister into a junkie. Here, she’s looking to avenge the murder of her boyfriend at the hands of a drug ring run by a particularly obnoxious white couple who run a dodgy “modelling agency” which offers clients more than just an opportunity to take some photographs. Despite being to all intents and purposes a civilian, Foxy proves to be more than a match for her foes and wreaks revenge in a variety of inventive ways. At one point this involves summary castration. Foxy Brown is, needless to say, not a subtle film.
Whatever criticisms one might have of Foxy Brown, there’s no doubt that Pam Grier is unforgettably iconic in the title role. Given an astonishing array of fancy costumes, and an afro you could lose a terrier in, Grier gives it all she’s got and creates a wonderful fantasy superwoman who is certainly in the same league as Richard Roundtree’s John Shaft. What’s fascinating is the way in which the conventions of the vigilante film work so much better when the oppressed get to do the killing. To some extent, Jack Hill stacks the deck by making virtually all the white characters loathsome to the point of inhumanity but that’s not so different to all the vigilante movies where the street gangs are all violent rapists and liberal authority figures are pathetic panty-waists. Foxy also relies as much on her wit and charm as on her penchant for violence and so she’s a far more credible and likeable figure than, say, Charles Bronson in Death Wish. The brutality is also far more caricatured and comic-strip here, with Hill’s refusal to wallow in sadism coming as a refreshing contrast to the technique of Michael Winner or J. Lee Thompson.
The main problem with the film comes when you compare it to Coffy, the previous Hill/Grier collaboration - and given the similarity in the narrative line, it’s hard not to. The earlier film is tough, violent and tremendously exciting but it also has a strong line in social commentary and Grier’s character is considerably more complex and morally compromised. There’s a strong sense in which Foxy Brown is a comic-strip pastiche of Coffy where social concerns are abandoned for cheap thrills. But the two films do share something interesting which is often discussed by film historians – the decision to not only place a strong, independent woman at the centre of the story but also to portray pimps and drug lords as villains rather than objects of admiration and aspiration.
But if Foxy Brown lacks the serious edge of the very best Blaxploitation movies, it provides plenty of good, not too clean entertainment. The black cast is exceptionally good with memorable bits from Antonio Fargas Jr and the excellent Juanita Brown while Peter Brown’s decidedly larger than life villainy is guaranteed to raise a smile. It’s also nice to see Jack Hill regular Sid Haig in a small role and Harry Holcombe is very funny as a racist judge who gets a well-deserved comeuppance. Indeed, it’s a very professional piece of work in general without the rough edges of Hill’s earlier work and plenty of solid technical craftsmanship. Soul fans will have a good time with Willie Hutch’s lively music score.
The film, however, belongs to Pam Grier who really comes into her own in her later films with Jack Hill. She’s tough in her earlier movies like The Big Bird Cage but in these two movies she has not only toughness and charisma but also vulnerability, strength of character and immense humour. In other words, she’s a huge star and her subsequent decline into supporting roles is an indictment of Hollywood’s lack of imagination when faced with a great black actress coming out of a waning cycle of action films. That’s one of the things which made her re-emergence in Jackie Brown so satisfying, demonstrating as it did that time had done nothing to dim her glory. In Foxy Brown you can see her at the very peak of her form. She’s quite something.
Arrow’s Blu-Ray release of Foxy Brown provides an opportunity to see this iconic film at its very best, with a new 1080p transfer and some fascinating extra features.
The MPEG-4/AVC transfer is framed at 1.85:1. It’s not absolutely pristine as there is some minor damage to the source here and there. But the film grain is wonderfully natural throughout and the colours pop off the screen with real vitality. There’s no intrusive digital noise and the level of detail is more than satisfactory. This is certainly a vast improvement on the MGM DVD released a few years ago. Equally good is the lossless mono soundtrack which offers dialogue and music in a pleasing balance. Optional English subtitles are offered.
The comprehensive package of extras is another demonstration of why Arrow are one of the best labels currently releasing in the UK. Jack Hill provides an eloquent and humorous commentary track which discusses the film in relation to Pam Grier’s career and Coffy in particular. He seems to consider Foxy Brown the lesser film but also has an obvious affection for it. From Black and White to Blaxploitation features Sid Haig discussing his career and collaboration with Hill. Haig is very entertaining interviewee and has a lot to say about his friendship with Hill and his admiration for Grier. There’s a nice little anecdote about Jackie Brown as well. In A Not So Minor Influence, Bob Minor, the first African-American member of the Stuntman s Association, has a lot to say about his career which began with Beyond the Valley of the Dolls and soon moved into Blaxploitation and an acquaintance with Jack Hill. He later worked with directors such as John Singleton, Larry Cohen and Ernest Dickerson and also acted in minor roles, including one in Foxy Brown.
On a more general tack is a featurette called Back to Black in which Fred Williamson, Austin Stoker, Rosanne Katon and film scholar Howard S. Berger discuss the Blaxploitation subgenre. This is well put together; a nice piece for beginners which will provide novices with a long list of movies to watch. It’s interesting, incidentally, that Williamson doesn’t like the Blaxploitation label and refuses to acknowledge it while Katon emphasises how much black audiences enjoyed the movies. Berger is a particularly welcome presence since he knows what he’s talking about and knows how to say it engagingly. He also makes an interesting point about how the political side of the films peaked right at the start and was gradually filtered out.
Finally, we get a small photo gallery and a trailer reel for Jack Hill’s major films including, apart from this one, Spider Baby, Coffy and the jaw-dropping Switchblade Sisters.