The genre changed the landscape of Black women in film, but were Blaxploitation’s leading women truly liberated?
Black Women and Liberation in Blaxploitation Films
In the early 1970s the rise of Blaxploitation films sought to change the narrative, as Black women were primarily cast as heroines rather than the victims of tragic events. Blaxploitation films had the intentions of combating this cycle by presenting Black women with heroine-like roles often depicting empowered imagery. Characters like Foxy Brown, Cleopatra Jones, and others became the new representations of what a liberated woman looked like in film during this time. In this study, I look into these characters as liberated women and analyze the intent of their portrayal in relation to the extent which they appear to be liberated in the films. My analysis is rooted in focusing on frequent themes within the films from sexual imagery to violence and everything in between. In doing so, I will answer the question as to what these images say about the overall Black ideal of what it means to be liberated as a Black woman. In drawing my conclusion to these questions I draw on texts such as Women of Blaxploitation: How the Black Action Film Heroine Changed American Popular Culture by Yvonne D. Simms, Marquita R. Smith’s article about sexuality & gender inequity regarding the Black militant woman, and Cedric Robinson’s writing on how Blaxploitation misrepresents the idea of liberation. Overall, I intend to convey that while women in Blaxploitation films were progressive in the sense of placing Black women in roles of power, there were many aspects of its execution that oppose this sentiment. Although the genre changed the landscape of Black women in film, this study asks whether the images of Blaxploitation presented of Black women were truly liberated. If so, who were these images of liberation truly for and what purpose do they serve?
When looking back at the history of Black women’s representation in film, it is apparent that it is underwhelming at best and in many cases tragic. Out of the many forms of entertainment that have been implemented into our society, film and television are among the most consequential. Beyond their entertaining nature and ability to offer a plethora of options to view various stories, movies and television shows have become extensions of representation of us as humans.1 While the customs and morals passed down from our parents set the foundation for one’s personality during our formative years, the material we consume on TV is highly impactful. Considering this, one of the contributing factors to what draws the masses to certain films and plot lines is the relatability of characters that we subconsciously see ourselves in. As a result, the representation of all ethnicities and genders is a must.
For Black people, this representation has left much to be desired. Black women have been depicted in movies as mammies, jezebels and generally every stereotypical character who was devoid of any agency.2 In the early 1970s the rise of Blaxploitation films sought to change the narrative as Black women were primarily cast as heroines rather than the victims of tragic events. Influential figures of the Blaxploitation era, such as Pam Grier and Tamara Dobson, who played the most iconic roles during this period, have contributed immensely toward the departure from stereotypical depictions of Black women in film.
Given the marginalizing historical representation of Black women in film leading up to the Blaxploitation era, these films were intended to take back their power by portraying Black women in a manner of empowerment. Collectively, the Black female heroines of Blaxploitation were created to serve as symbols of strength, elegance and fearlessness for Black girls in America.3 While these female leads of Blaxploitation shifted the narrative of Black women on screen during this time behind heroines such as Cleopatra Jones and Foxy Brown, there is a lot to question regarding the presentation of these characters as liberated women: Did Blaxploitation films like Cleopatra Jones (1973) and Foxy Brown (1974) present images of Black women that were liberated? If so, who were these images of Black female liberation truly for and what purpose did they serve?
The shift in representation that Blaxploitation films initiated would reach a defining moment in 1973 with the release of movies like Coffy, Cleopatra Jones, and Foxy Brown. Depicted as gun-toting, independent, fearless women with a heightened sense of style, Pam Grier and Tamara Dobson established themselves as pivotal figures in the Blaxploitation era. Not only were they redefining beauty standards of Black women in film during the 1970s by wearing their natural hair and controlling their wardrobe on screen, the roles they played were intended to symbolize the new representation of Black femininity.
In Women of Blaxploitation: How the Black Action Film Heroine Changed American Popular Culture, author Yvonne D. Sims goes in depth about the impact that representation in film has in society. Emphasizing the fact that film is the most impactful communicative conveyor, Simms highlights the important role that films play in influencing the development, establishment and changing of cultural myths created about ethnic groups and gender roles in American culture. In doing so, she explains how the images of Black people in film serve as historical documentation that reflected the collective consciousness and attitudes of people within American society amidst the era the film was produced.4 Looking beyond what these women in Blaxploitation were intended to represent as heroines, the manner in which they were depicted on screen was telling of the times.
In the article “Afro Thunder!: Sexual Politics & Gender Inequity in the Liberation Struggles of the Black Militant Woman,” Marquita R. Smith argues that Blaxploitation was used as a means to liberating Black people in connection to the Black liberation movement. Smith refers to organizations who led the Black liberation movement like the Black Panther Party and the gender disparity in its power dynamics. In doing so, Smith points out that Black women were left out of the conversation in relation to a collective liberation Black. Furthermore Smith draws a direct correlation to the way Black women were represented in Blaxploitation films claiming that while the films’ intentions were to uplift all Black people many aspects of Black women’s representation was subduing. Using Pam Grier’s role in Coffy as an example, Smith explains how “strong women leads” of Blaxploitation films are sold the illusion of having sexual freedom.5
In Cedric Robinson’s study, he goes in depth on the portrayal of specific Black female heroines in Blaxploitation films by emphasizing the ways their depiction was detrimental in representing the liberated Black Woman. Robinson’s analysis follows the representation of Pam Grier in her roles as Foxy Brown, Coffy, and Sheba Baby essentially questioning the manner in which the films portray what a liberated Black woman looks like. Robinson highlights the fact that many female characters in Blaxploitation were created on the heels of the women like Elaine Brown and Angela Davis who fought for Black Liberation.6 Understanding the multiplicity in which these activists and many women alike expressed themselves within revolution, Blaxploitation films fell short given the roles played by Grier as a heroine were one dimensional. In consideration to this, Robinson believed that in the representation of female characters placed viewers of the films in a counter liberative state of mind. Robinson’ analyzation of Pam Grier does an exceptional job at showing the ways in which her portrayal could be detrimental towards the ideas of what Black female liberation is supposed to be from the films.It is important to analyze whether these action heroines of the Blaxploitation film era entirely fulfilled this inspired depiction. The thematic imagery frequently presented regarding the expression of Black female leads in the films from sexual freedom to their relationship with violence in the films, speaks to the Black ideal of what it meant to be liberated as a Black woman during this time.
Methods and Data
I will conduct a content analysis of three films Coffy (1973), Cleopatra Jones (1973) and Foxy Brown (1974). Each of these Blaxploitation films are renowned for featuring our first glimpse of Black women as the lead heroine. Cast for both the roles of Coffy and Foxy Brown, Pam Grier plays characters who take the initiative of vigilante justice for the betterment of the Black community by extracting the rampant drugs and violence that were prevalent within it. As Cleopatra Jones, Tamera Dobson plays a fashionable CIA agent who uses her high stature within the force as well as her mastery of kung fu to eradicate drugs from the Black community in LA. I examined how each character’s means of liberation was expressed through their Blackness, gender, femininity, and fashion choices. Furthermore I analyzed each character’s romantic relationships with men and how this either contributed or took away from their image as liberated women.
1973 would mark the year where Pam Grier was casted as one of the first Black women heroines on screen where she assumed the role as Coffy (1973). In the film Grier plays a nurse who sets out to avenge her sister who wound up in a vegetative state from contaminated heroin. Through vigilante justice, Coffy takes on the mob in an attempt to single handedly eradicate the drugs from the Black community. On her journey Coffy does not realize that her politician boyfriend, whose campaign is centered on taking the drugs out of the community, is secretly working with the mob to keep them in. When Coffy’s police officer friend who shares the same aspirations for the community as her is injured after threatening to expose the corruption within the police force, Coffy’s mission intensifies.7
While the film intends for Coffy’s character to be an empowered woman, there are many aspects of her mission against the mob that diminishes her empowerment. An early example of this takes place in the introduction of her relationship with her boyfriend Councilman Howard Brunswick when Coffy meets up with him at a meeting that took place at a strip club. Upon introducing Coffy as his love interest to his white colleague, Howard calls her a “liberated woman.” The honor and respect that Howard presented her with is taken away immediately in the following scene when he reduces her to a sex object calling her a “lusty, young bitch” after sex. 8
In Coffy’s attempt to infiltrate the mob in order to sabotage their drug sales, Coffy gets in contact with a pimp named King George by entering his prostitution ring as a call girl. This tactic is to gain access to Arturo Vitroni, the ringleader of the mob. During this time, Coffy undergoes a series of traumatic moments that take the power away from her role as a powerful woman. The constant sexual violence and aggression Coffy endures from men in relation to her repressed responses throughout the film implies a certain immunity to those acts. Coffy eventually gains access to Vitroni as he is aroused by her performance in a brawl with the rest of the call girls referring to her as a “wild animal” that he has to have.
When Coffy gains access to Vitroni for a sexual encounter upon his request, Vitroni spits on her and proceeds to call her a “no-good bitch” ordering her to crawl for him. Using this as her opportunity to progress in her mission Coffy pulls a gun on Vitroni to which he responds with little fear. He did not consider it a real threat assuming that this was King George’s plan. Coffy’s attempt was foiled as Vitroni’s henchman disarmed her with brute force leaving her helpless and beaten as they then held her hostage in a shed.
While a hostage Coffy learns of her boyfriend’s involvement with the mob. He further betrayed her by discounting the intimacy of their relationship, referring to her as a “girl” he casually has sex with. When she manages to escape the captivity killing the mob bosses in the process, Coffy pursues Brunswick to confront him. It is clear that Coffy is emotionally triggered by his words and her weakness for him prevents her from outright killing him. Coffy’s resolve changes when she sees that Howard has just betrayed her with another woman and in a feat of jealousy, she proceeds to shoot him in his private area.
This scene insinuates that Coffy’s anger towards Howard was less about his contribution to risking her sister’s life than it was about his disloyalty to her. In the end, the intended depiction of Coffy’s role as an empowered woman in control is severely undermined by her reluctance to make her own decisions without the manipulation of a man who consistently expresses his lack of regard for her as a person. Ultimately, her actions appear to be motivated by revenge rather than the betterment of the community or Black female liberation.9 Considering the heroes played by Black men in Blaxploitation films such as Shaft (1971), The Mack (1973) and Dolomite (1975), there is no recollection of these characters being subjected to a similar degree. Furthermore, looking at some of the iconic characters in mainstream cinema like James Bond or Charlies Angels, there are little to no references from the films that portray these heroes and heroines in a manner of weakness let alone endure a fraction of the abuse that Foxy Brown or Coffy experience. With that being said, the question comes to mind as to what the producers and writers of these films are trying to convey in regards to how Black women should be valued in everyday life.
Cleopatra Jones (1973)
Exactly one month later, there was a new heroine to emerge in Blaxploitation with the release of Cleopatra Jones (1973), played by Tamara Dobson in her first acting role ever. Originally known as a supermodel, Dobson has been known as a pioneer in her work by redefining beauty standards within the space as a six-foot-two Black woman who wore her hair in a natural afro. With her role as Cleopatra Jones, Dobson intended to remain on brand as she took control of how the character would be styled from her wardrobe to her hairstyle.
Playing a CIA agent who operated undercover as a fashion model Jones returned to California to eliminate the thirty-million-dollar drug business, run by Mommy the mob boss, that is contaminating the Black community. When the police raid her boyfriend Casey’s rehabilitation community center and police plant drugs on one of the members, Cleopatra vows to take Mommy out.
From the first scene of the film, Cleopatra looks elegant and powerful, as she steps off a helicopter in a sheik fur coat to observe the Turkish poppy fields. It is clear she is an authoritative figure given that the Turkish officials have their complete attention on Cleopatra, awaiting their orders from her. After one of the officials asks what they should do with the multi-million-dollar poppy field in front of them, Cleopatra simply tells him to burn the entire field regardless of its worth.
Reluctant to do so due to the field’s monetary value in relation to the drug business, they have no choice but follow her orders because of her senior position in the CIA. It is clear that she is on a mission and is focused to accomplish it at all cost, no matter who or what is in her way. Cleopatra’s authority and confidence in her sexuality throughout the film significantly redefines gender roles and racial representation considering her occupation as a CIA agent. Given the fact that this has historically been a role reserved for white men on screen, Cleopatra Jones was a breath of fresh air.
While she flaunts her sexual freedom of expression throughout the film, Cleopatra does not depend on it as a way to get out of intense situations. On many different occasions of the film Cleopatra Jones displayed both her physical and mental superiority during her encounters with enemies. Enraged by the news that a large portion of her drug inventory was destroyed, Mommy orders her henchman to murder Cleopatra Jones upon her return to the states. Unfazed by the ambush at baggage claim, Cleopatra outwits and defeats the armed attackers with her kung-fu prowesses.
As she continues her mission to destroy the circulation of drugs in the Black community, she finds a way to use her combination of wit, strength, and a little firepower to guide her way. Doing so in a luxurious fashion, Cleopatra drives a European sports car and lives in a beautiful home in the Los Angeles hills. While Cleopatra acknowledges the extent to which her boyfriend, Casey, means to her, her affection for him does not get in the way of her responsibilities. In the end, Cleopatra accomplishes her mission and kills Mommy during a fierce fight between the two of them.10
The film’s depiction of Cleopatra as a liberated and empowered woman turned out to be a more successful effort than Coffy due to the fact that she had complete agency over her destiny throughout. Her sexuality was prevalent but at no point did it get used as a weapon against her by men imposing their will on her. The film advertised Cleopatra as a powerful woman and this was displayed through her superior wit, mastery of martial arts and fearless yet composed attitude towards her obstacles. In the end, Cleopatra Jones was a significant departure from stereotypes that have traditionally been placed on women such as Jezebel, mammy, sapphire or the exotic other characters. With the movie Cleopatra Jones, Tamara Dobson offered an alternate image of what a Black woman hero looked like in film.
Foxy Brown (1974)
A year later Pam Grier would be casted for yet another star role as a crime fighting heroine who takes matters into her own hands to protect the Black community from the rampant drug circulation in Foxy Brown (1974). Upon the film’s release, critics deemed Foxy Brown as the sequel to Coffy due to the similarities of both characters, but this was not the case. Throughout the film Foxy Brown styles her hair in numerous fashions highlighting the dynamics of Black femininity. In the process of creating Foxy Brown, the writers claim that the heroine was heavily inspired by the stature of civil rights activist Angela Davis.11 Considering the frequent traumatic occurrences of physical and sexual violence that happen to Foxy Brown throughout the film, this depiction was in many ways dangerous with regard to the idea of what liberated Black Women represented.
In the film, Foxy Brown takes on multiple disguises in an attempt to avenge her boyfriend against the mob goons who killed him and eventually kill her brother. Brown Infiltrates the prostitution ran by Ms. Kathryn in order to ruin their business from the inside out. While Foxy Brown is presented as “liberated” through the expression of her sexuality and womanhood she constantly finds herself in situations where men weaponize these same empowering qualities against her in a dominating fashion.12 When her true identity is discovered by the mobsters after helping her friend escape the prostitute ring to be with her husband and children Foxy is kidnapped. Brought back to Ms. Kathryn and her lover’s home, Foxy is continuously assaulted both sexually and physically until they decided to send her to a ranch for additional torture and rape.
Foxy is eventually able to escape, burning the ranch with the men who abused her inside of it. Upon her return Foxy convinces a Black community organization of vigilantes to seek justice and revenge for her loved ones. In doing so, they intercept the mob’s plans, capture Ms. Kathryn’s lover and castrate him in the process. Finally, Foxy Brown brings the sliced penis back to Ms. Kathryn, kills her two bodyguards and leaves her to suffer with her castrated lover for the rest of her life.
Although the end of the film is portrayed as though Foxy Brown achieved justice, the mental, physical and spiritual turmoil that she endured throughout makes it hard to believe that she was vindicated in the end. Foxy took matters into her own hands to avenge her slain lover and take drugs out of the Black community but it ultimately cost her many of the qualities that made her character appear to be liberated. Since its release Foxy Brown has been classified as one of the classic films to be released during this era as it was viewed to be transgressive against the traditional representation of Black women in film. While Pam Grier was given the creative agency to style her appearance how she wanted, the countless acts of physical and sexual violence against her hinders Foxy Brown’s image as “liberated.”
Discussion and Conclusion
The Blaxploitation era has been highly influential in changing the narrative behind the representation of Black people in film despite criticism about its execution. Blaxploitation films marked the first images of Black women not only as the main characters of films, but heroines as well. With a film like Cleopatra Jones, Black women were represented in a manner that was intended to be empowering. However, in the same breath, Black women were also depicted as disposable and inferior in films like Shaft, Superfly, and The Mack, where the men were the heroic leads.
While the casting of Black women for lead roles as heroes during this time period changed the perception and representation of Black Women on film, the overall depiction of Black women heroes in Blaxploitation regarding their sexual freedom of expression and femininity reveal the ways their true liberation on screen was subdued. Although Cleopatra Jones properly executed Dobson’s portrayal as a liberated Black woman through the multi-faceted nature of her womanhood without diminishing her light, the examples of Blaxploitation films that do the opposite are immense. Considering the fact that both Foxy Brown and Coffy were written, produced and directed entirely by Black and White men, it is important to question who these images of liberated women were truly for and what it says about the depiction of what liberated Black women were expected to look like on film. Ultimately, looking at certain scenes in films like Foxy Brown and Coffy, it is clear that many aspects of the movie producers’ ideals of what a Black liberated woman looked like were rooted in the fantasies of what they wanted her to look like.
- Joshua Wright, “Scandalous: Olivia Pope and Black Women in Primetime History,” in Black Women and Popular Culture: The Conversation Continues (Lexington Books, 2014).
- Patricia Hill Collins, “Mammies, Matriarchs, and Other Controlling Images,” Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment (Routledge, 2000), 76-106.
- Yvonne D. Sims, Women of Blaxploitation: How the Black Action Film Heroine Changed American Popular Culture (McFarland, 2006).
- Sims, Women of Blaxploitation.
- Marquita R. Smith, “Afro Thunder!: Sexual Politics & Gender Inequity in the Liberation Struggles of the Black Militant Woman,” Michigan Feminist Studies, no. 22 (2009): 62–77.
- Cedric Robinson, “Blaxploitation and the Misrepresentation of Liberation,” Race & Class 40, no. 1 (July 1998): 1–12.
- Sims, Women of Blaxploitation.
- Smith, “Afro Thunder!”
- Smith, Afro Thunder!
- Sims, Women of Blaxploitation.
- Sims, Women of Blaxploitation.
- Robinson, “Blaxploitation and the Misrepresentation of Liberation.