Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Off the Shelf: Foxy Brown / Friday Foster (Blu-ray)

by Patrick Bromley
All due apologies to Fred Williamson, Isaac Hayes, Jim Brown, Jim Kelly et. al., but Pam Grier is the single greatest icon of blaxploitation ever to hit the screen.

I said last week in my piece on Coffy that Pam Grier isn't so much an actress as she is a force of nature, particularly during her 1970s heyday when she was headlining a series of successful star vehicles and kicking ass in all of them. And while Coffy may be the ultimate Pam Grier movie -- it remains her best, and she's at her best in it -- both 1974's Foxy Brown and 1975's Friday Foster offer audiences a chance to see different variations on Grier's persona with varying degrees of success. Both films are now available on Blu-ray from Olive Films.

First up is Foxy Brown, which reteams Grier with Coffy writer/director Jack Hill to slightly lesser effect. She's once again on a one-woman revenge mission, this time infiltrating the sex slave trade instead of the drug industry. When her boyfriend is murdered, Foxy traces the crime to a modeling agency fronting for a prostitution ring and works her way in, killing bad guys left and right on her way to getting justice.
While Foxy Brown is cooler and sexier and tougher and more badass than 95% of other movies, it suffers in comparison to Coffy. Originally conceived as a sequel to that movie, Foxy Brown was changed at the last minute to be a standalone film. And as a standalone movie, it's too much like Coffy. So many of the ingredients are the same -- Grier, Hill, revenge, Sid Haig -- but the mix just isn't as potent. There are moments that are truly explosive. The violence is even more severe, whether it's Foxy Brown dousing someone in gasoline before lighting him on fire, running someone down with the propellor of an airplane (Hill, being Hill, does not cut away but instead shows the body explode into a thousand bloody chunks) or cutting a guy's dick off and leaving it for his girlfriend. Everyone seems to be trying really hard to outdo themselves. Grier is even more glamorous. The movie is even more edgy. But while it still achieves greatness at times, some of that stuff feels forced. It's like a conscious effort was made to create a movie like Coffy instead of letting Foxy Brown be its own thing.

Still, a movie in which Pam Grier picks up a razorblades with her tongue is more than worth seeing. She is just as tough and badass in Foxy Brown (and possibly even sexier, as though that's even possible). She's also put through the ringer a lot more, beaten and tortured and raped. And though her revenge is brutal and more than earned, there's something troubling about what happens to her in this movie that I can't quite put my finger on. Sexual violence plays such a part in so many of these '70s exploitation movies, so perhaps it's only fair that Foxy be expected to roll in the mud, too. I just prefer to see Pam Grier standing above it all. She's not the one who gets raped; she's the one who kills the rapists. She's the one who calls the shots and who is in charge of her body. Others do not take her against her will or violate her. Of course it's a trope (for lack of a better word) in a lot of these revenge movies, but it's a trope I can live without. Especially when Pam Grier is involved.
In Friday Foster, Grier plays a character who talks her way into trouble rather than shoot her way out of it. She's a photographer and journalist (Get it? Gal Friday??) with a nose for tracking down dangerous scoops. When she witnesses a political assassination attempt, Friday finds herself at the center of a massive conspiracy to take out all of the country's black leaders. She teams up with Yaphet Kotto's Colt Hawkins (!!), a private detective who helps her uncover the conspiracy and prevent further murders from taking place.

Friday Foster is a fascinating movie -- a cross between Brenda Starr and a Jack Hill blaxploitation movie. It comes by this honestly, as it's based on a syndicated comic strip by Jim Lawrence (the first to feature an African American woman as its lead character). I haven't read the comic, so I can't say with any certainty that it wasn't as edgy as the movie...though because it ran in newspapers in the early '70s, I suspect it was fairly tame. The movie could easily have been a PG-rated pop mystery and been fine, but co-writer/director Arthur Marks piles on the exploitation movie elements: lots of violence, lots of nudity and salty language. It's a super weird mix, so squeaky clean that the edgy stuff feels out of place but then edgy enough that the safe commerciality feels like a mistake. It's a bizarre alchemy that I enjoy more each time I revisit the movie.
In Friday Foster, we get to see a different side of Pam Grier. She's softer and sunnier. While she's still totally capable -- this is Pam Grier we're talking about -- she's a lot more vulnerable here than in her collaborations with Jack Hill. She's just as sexual as she is in other movies, but it's less aggressive and more casual, like it's a function of the time period and not Friday as a character. And because there are so many supporting players to service (Friday Foster has a lot of characters), Grier often ends up taking a back seat in her own movie.

Still, it's fun to see her play a new kind of character and a reminder that she was once a great movie star, one who could have had a huge career outside of exploitation films if Hollywood hadn't been so intimidated by her spirit, her toughness, her impossible sexuality. If nothing else, Friday Foster is a ton of fun just to watch the incredible lineup of talent that Marks assembled -- it's as though he cast every single great African American character actor from the '70s and put them in one movie. Besides Grier and Kotto, there's Eartha Kitt, Carl Weathers, Ted Lange, Scatman Crothers, Godfrey Cambridge, Paul Benjamin, Thalmus Rasulala (Blacula) and Jason Bernard. Even Jim Backus shows up. Every few minutes we get a familiar and welcome face.

Foxy Brown and Friday Foster hit Blu-ray the same day as Coffy, which means you can have a Pam Grier triple feature for #Junesploitation Icons or Blaxploitation day. The discs both look great -- how can they not with Pam Grier in HD? -- and Foxy Brown even gets a lossless 5.1 surround mix. While it's a bummer that there are no special features (Hill's commentary for Foxy Brown is noticeably absent), it's a trade I'm willing to make to finally own the movies in proper 16x9 widescreen. This is the way Pam Grier is meant to be seen. Well...almost. She's really meant to be seen on the big screen. No TV can contain her. At least these Blu-rays come close.

Foxy Brown Blu-ray release date: June 9, 2015
92 minutes/1974/R
1.85:1 (1080p)
DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)

Friday Foster Blu-ray release date: June 9, 2015
90 minutes/1975/R
1.85:1 (1080p)
DTS HD 2.0 Master Audio (English)

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