What is it: Foxy Brown is one of a series of blaxsploitation films starring Pam Grier in the early 1970s, which directly inspired her being cast as the star in Quentin Tarantino’s excellent noir, 1997’s Jackie Brown. Grier is Foxy, who’s got a cop boyfriend and a drug dealer brother. When the brother snitches out her boyfriend to the gangs, Foxy sets out for revenge in top blaxsploitation style. Foxy goes undercover with a prostitution ring (!) to avenge her losses, but things go south and she’s captured and brutalised. But when Foxy makes her move to escape, things get very bloody very quickly as the bodies pile up.
Why I never saw it: Blaxsploitation is a tricky genre to watch in 2022. You either roll with it, enjoy some of the camp/kitsch value and accept it as a portrait of the times, or you’re kind of horrified by the casual racism, sexism and violence. I do love a gritty, sleazy ‘70s crime movie, though, and where blaxsploitation stood out from more mainstream fare like The French Connection is in casting Black actors in the leading roles, making stars out of previously marginalised figures like Shaft’s Richard Roundtree, Fred Williamson or Jim Brown. Grier was the star of several of several major movies of the era, and Tarantino himself called her cinema’s first female action star. On the other hand, I’m a middle-aged American-born white guy, so it’s not quite my place to wade too deeply into the ambiguities of what blaxsploitation meant. It provided some strong Black heroic figures on screen, but also saddled them in crime- and drug-drenched movies that wallowed in a lot of stereotypes.
Does it measure up to its rep? Grier’s Foxy is a typical Death Wish-styled exploitation movie archetype – the gentle person who turns into a murderous killer. Unfortunately, that means in Foxy Brown the lead suffers some horrendous abuse, including being injected with heroin and raped by thugs. The queasy hardcore intensity of those scenes viewed in modern times linger and make it a bit harder to enjoy when Foxy tears loose and has her revenge. And trust me – she gets her revenge, notably in a remarkably gory bit of retribution upon the leading white male villain at the climax. You don’t see this kind of revenge in Tom Cruise movies!
There’s a groovy aesthetic to Foxy Brown I can’t help but dig, from the James Bond-style opening credits to the way Grier shifts from demure girlfriend to striking leather-clad figure of vengeance, dazzling along the way with some very hip ‘70s fashion. Remember, in 1974, a Black woman fighting back on screen and taking vengeance against white men (at one point, mocking the genital size of a slimy white authority figure she entraps!) was a novelty. Grier dominates, but she’s helped by a cast including Antonio Fargas as her jittery backstabbing brother and a weirdly so-bad-its-good over-the-top turn by Kathryn Loder as the preening, sadistic leader of the drug syndicate. Foxy Brown is the better-remembered of Grier’s movies today, but it’s actually a quasi-sequel to a slightly less exploitive and rapey film, 1973’s Coffy.
Worth seeing? Remembering this almost-50-year-old movie is utterly an artefact of its time, sure. It’ll offend some viewers coming to it cold but it’s hard to imagine anyone not finishing this being a little bit impressed by Grier’s kick-ass warrior, even if you’re put off by the sleazier side of the storytelling. Coffy is the better movie, but perhaps Foxy Brown better sums up the messy, yet empowering allure of blaxsploitation even now – with Grier’s powerhouse performance, despite all the violence, rape and sexism, it’s still at its heart a movie about standing up for yourself in a crappy world and sticking it to the man – whoever and whatever that may be.