Coffy: how Blaxploitation star Pam Grier helped lead the way for strong resilient women in film

When Pam Grier’s breakthrough movie Coffy was released in 1973, American International Pictures was clearly confident that her eponymous character was a supercharged heroine who would excite filmgoers.

“She’s the ‘GODMOTHER’ of them all!”, exclaimed the poster, linking the African-American Coffy to Marlon Brando’s Don Corleone in The Godfather (released the previous year). More enthusiastically still, the poster also called her “The Baddest One-Chick Hit-Squad That Ever Hit Town!”

Grier’s starring role in Coffy marked an upgrade in her screen status, following a series of smaller roles in exploitative prison flicks. Her proficiency in energetic action sequences and her openness to frank bodily display made her a perfect fit for American cinema in an era permitting more violence and nudity on screen than before. But Coffy saw her for the first time as the main propulsive force in a Blaxploitation movie.

A label more popular than scholarly, Blaxploitation captures the wave of low-budget, black-character-centred films that emerged from Hollywood in the first half of the 1970s. This cinematic movement was simultaneously reactionary and progressive, manifesting in the same instant both restrictive effects and liberating gestures.

On the one hand, Blaxploitation was the product of a studio system that was still white-dominated, with relatively few African-American executives, producers and directors. The films were not so much clear political statements as nakedly commercial ventures, characterised by low production values and familiar genre codes.

But on the other, the movies highlighted African-American agency and creativity. Crude and cartoonish though many of them were, they were nevertheless more Malcolm X than Martin Luther King in atmospherics, with protagonists who preferred to defeat whites than build multiracial alliances.

Coffy embodies the contradictions of Blaxploitation in a highly concentrated form. The film’s 50th anniversary allows us to reassess this vein of filmmaking and, more particularly, to think about the mixed politics of Grier’s own star image.

A liberated woman

In her day job, Coffy is a nurse engaged in emergency care. Outside working hours, however, she embarks on a one-woman crusade to annihilate the drug dealers who have rendered her young sister comatose and brought misery to many in the black community.

According to her lover, African-American politician Howard Brunswick, Coffy is a liberated woman. Just as she does in later Blaxploitation films such as Foxy Brown (1974) and Sheba, Baby (1975), Grier dispenses with legal niceties as she dynamically sets about remedying her people’s ills. Nevertheless, a sense of constriction, as well as liberation, is still apparent in her screen persona.

Only two years after Coffy’s release, feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey published her essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. This theorised the heterosexual male gaze that Mulvey saw as governing mainstream film.

While men are “bearers of the look”, women by contrast are coded on screen “for strong visual and erotic impact, so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness”. Grier, in Coffy, is frequently exhibited in this way, her unclothed body a point of obsession for the camera.

Yet if Grier is a female object in the film, she is also emphatically a feminist subject. As she said in her 2010 autobiography, Foxy: “My movies featured women claiming the right to fight back, which previously had been out of the question.”

Coffy fights back heroically, surviving injury and laughing in the face of death as she erases drug pushers, bent cops and corrupt politicians. She is not only physically adept, but mentally agile too.

Grier’s performance in Coffy helped to initiate an American action cinema oriented around resourceful and resilient women. Think of the tradition that extends from Sigourney Weaver in the Alien franchise and Terminator’s Linda Hamilton, to Black Panther’s Danai Gurira and Lupita Nyong’o. Crucially, it should be added that these descendants had the advantages of rich narrative and developed characterisation that were denied to Grier as she worked on the rapid production line of low-budget Blaxploitation cinema.

Continues at...

Read the full article, written by Dr Andrew Dix, a Senior Lecturer in American Literature and Film.

Notes for editors

Press release reference number: PR 23/146

Loughborough is one of the country’s leading universities, with an international reputation for research that matters, excellence in teaching, strong links with industry, and unrivalled achievement in sport and its underpinning academic disciplines.

It has been awarded five stars in the independent QS Stars university rating scheme, named the best university in the world for sports-related subjects in the 2023 QS World University Rankings – the seventh year running – and University of the Year for Sport by The Times and Sunday Times University Guide 2022.

Loughborough is ranked 7th in The UK Complete University Guide 2023, 10th in the Guardian University League Table 2024 and 10th in the Times and Sunday Times Good University Guide 2024.

Loughborough is consistently ranked in the top twenty of UK universities in the Times Higher Education’s ‘table of tables’, and in the Research Excellence Framework (REF) 2021 over 90% of its research was rated as ‘world-leading’ or ‘internationally-excellent’. In recognition of its contribution to the sector, Loughborough has been awarded seven Queen's Anniversary Prizes.

The Loughborough University London campus is based on the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park and offers postgraduate and executive-level education, as well as research and enterprise opportunities. It is home to influential thought leaders, pioneering researchers and creative innovators who provide students with the highest quality of teaching and the very latest in modern thinking.