August 18, 2011

Foxy and Jackie, From Body to Brains: The Restructuring of Pam Grier's Star Text

The following is an adaptation of an essay I wrote in 2009 as an undergraduate at UC Irvine. 

Abstract: In the opening title sequences of Foxy Brown (Jack Hill, 1974) and Jackie Brown (Quentin Tarantino, 1997), Pam Grier’s body is foregrounded, the subject of the camera’s gaze. However, the focus of the camera, the pace of the titles, and the mood set by each are diametric opposites which signal a shift in the treatment of Pam Grier as an action star. Whereas Foxy Brown’s titles are frenetic, beset with multilayered, Day-Glo silhouettes of Grier’s hyper-sexualized Foxy, Tarantino’s credits are calm and subdued. The opening of Foxy Brown fetishizes Grier’s body piecemeal, prefiguring the physical nature of Foxy’s struggles and triumphs later in the film; Jackie Brown, by contrast, focuses on Grier as a whole, utilizing long takes to solidify her presence as a strong and put-together woman. Each title sequence’s audio track provides further clues to the treatment of Grier’s character. Whereas the lyrics in Willie Hutch’s theme explicitly narrate the storyline and characteristics of Foxy Brown, “Across 110th Street” by Bobby Womack paints a more ambiguous character, one whose goals and methods are not a clear-cut and triumphs not as celebratory as Foxy’s. 

In her essay “Wham! Bam! Pam! Pam Grier as Hot Action Bade and Cool Action Mama,” Chris Holmlund pinpoints the tension inherent in the representation of Grier’s body displayed in the titles. She characterizes Grier’s ‘70s star persona as “kick ass and in control, [however] she is nevertheless frequently positioned as beautiful spectacle” (Holmlund, 98). This is certainly the case in the titles, where the narrative is postponed in favor of an erotic display, Foxy dancing to her own theme song. Grier’s Foxy is both alluring and threatening, drawing the viewer in closer with seductive dance moves, and signaling her power by pulling out a pistol and shooting it straight at the camera.

The concept of "spectacle" is important in understanding how Grier is portrayed in Foxy Brown, especially in relation to her later role in Jackie Brown, which Holmlund groups in a category of film roles which are “rarely ‘spectacles’” (Holmlund, 104). As stated above, the title sequence is a fast-paced visual display, choreographed to music, and situated outside the space of the narrative, in the position of a spectacle. Jennifer Bean’s conception of “nervous bodies” is applicable in this sequence, where the spectator becomes involved in the frenzy of bodies, in this case Foxy’s. Grier’s bodily display is not dissimilar from Bean’s displacement of the cinema of attractions to that of the performance (Bean, 17). Bean argues that the dissemination of information regarding early cinema female perilous stars and serial queens helped establish and codify the conception of stardom (Bean, 30 and Steimer, 4/2/09). 

I would add that this basic mechanism is at play in Grier’s stardom as well, her body being the center of the discourse on her star persona. Her role in Foxy Brown is one element of this discourse, which led to Quentin Tarantino casting Grier in Jackie Brown, which in turn added another layer of information to her star text. In analyzing the two films and their title sequences, I want to avoid a false dichotomy of straightforward comparison and contrast. Instead, by looking at a few of each films' semantic elements, we can see that the attitude towards Grier’s star persona undergoes a shift from focusing on her body ("spectacular" physicality) to her intellect and interior strength.

The expression of moral complexity and maturity reflected in the shift from Foxy to Jackie is at the heart of Tarantino’s restructuring of Pam Grier’s star persona. We can see an example of this by looking at the treatment of social issues and Foxy’s/Jackie’s narrative drive in both films. In Foxy Brown, Grier is “an action heroine with a social conscious,” a woman whose pragmatic social ideals grant her passage into the “boy’s club” of the community Black Power movement (Holmlund, 100). Holmlund also notes that Hill’s film actively criticizes the drug trade in Black communities, characterized by the dominant Katharine (Katharine Loder), who is coded as lesbian, and Steve (Peter Brown), the morally weak and eventually castrated White man. Jackie Brown is not concerned with the social consciousness displayed by her namesake.

Again, the film’s credit sequence provides clues to the character’s position on social activism. Bobby Womack’s “Across 110th Street” plays twice in Jackie Brown, once over the opening credits, and again during the closing credits. Providing a bookend to Jackie’s narrative, one’s attitude towards the lyrics undergo a chance having seen the film unfold. The song tells the story of a young Black man’s struggle to survive on the street amidst the hazards of prostitution and drugs. 

Over the opening titles, Womack’s song seems like a characteristic Tarantino homage to the ‘70s blaxploitation films, including Foxy Brown. However, the lyrics hint at a moral complexity and ambiguity that Foxy’s straightforward revenge structure does not support. Womack justifies his dubious lifestyle, “I’m not saying what I did was alright,/Trying to break out of the ghetto was a day to day fight.” This sentiment is echoed in Jackie Brown’s defense of stealing the money. The ATF agent (Michael Keaton) and policeman (Michael Bowen) interviewing her play upon Jackie’s status as Black woman in her forties, stuck in a dead-end job at a worthless airline. She is explicit in her motivations: she wants to get away from her life as it is, and stealing Ordell’s (Samuel L. Jackson) money gives her that chance. Jackie’s entire plan does not become clear until the conclusion of the film, wherein the viewer realizes she has been conning everyone involved, manipulating even her partner and romantic interest, Max Cherry (Robert Forster). That she accomplishes this feat without using violence, especially in contrast to the bumbling and murderous criminal played by Robert de Niro, and the supposed mastermind Ordell, is a testament to her strategic skill, patience, and courage.  Foxy Brown is also able to outwit the White power structure, but without employing physical violence like Ordell, whose weapons trade victimizes his own Black community.

The shift towards maturity is also communicated in Grier’s evolving wardrobe, as expressed by her occupation. Foxy Brown a non-professional whose “job,” as defined by the film, is sister to her deadbeat brother (Antonio Fargas) and girlfriend to her murdered beau (Terry Carter). During the credit sequence, the spectacle of Foxy’s body is emphasized through multiple costume changes. 

In the two-minute sequence, she wears: 1) a sequined top and slacks, 2) a bikini, 3) a form-fitting dress, 4) a fashionable man’s hat and skirt combo, 5) a one-piece halter top jumpsuit, 6) a tank top and slacks, and finally 7) a leather jacket and pants accented with an Afro hairdo to emphasize her kick-ass karate moves. 

The sheer multitude of costume changes underscores the conflicting identities of Grier’s star text during her blaxploitation period. She is at once sexualized and empowered, juggling the concepts of Grier’s material function (she dances, she does karate) and Foxy’s narrative function (she’s sexy, but dangerous).

At the other end of the spectrum, Jackie Brown is portrayed physically through costuming as a flight attendant. Her uniform is one of only two outfits she wears in the entire film, the other being a very smart black and white business suit, a sign of the success she will enjoy after she has acquired the money. Costuming in Jackie Brown is a non-issue for the title character, the blandness of her outfits, neither mannish nor overly feminine, allow for her cunning and intellect to take center stage. Even when Jackie is shopping for the suit, the scene is not typical of a consumer indulgence. She is able to negotiate her desire for new clothes with her scamming operation, seamlessly integrating a stereotypically feminine activity with stereotypically masculine behavior.

The film's title sequence establishes the tone of the film and sets up many important aspects of the character, specifically through the costuming and the positioning of Grier’s body in the frame. For the film’s first minute and a half, Grier’s figure, in profile, is sustained in a long take/medium long shot on the right hand side of the frame. She is being carried along on an airport’s moveable sidewalk as the actor’s credits are inscribed to her left. Grier’s face is placid, a slight Mona Lisa smile on her lips. This sustained shot functions as an invitation to expound on Jackie Brown’s thoughts. Instead of quick cuts of her lips, eyes, or breasts, as in the Foxy Brown credits, the viewer is drawn to Grier’s face. 

As noted, “Across 110th Street” is not the literal narration that “Foxy Brown” is to its titles. Jackie is not crossing a street, and we are soon to learn the film does not take place in a 1970s ghetto. Grier’s immobility is not a sign of weakness, as it might be for a less physically imposing actress, but an expression of her “smarts, poise, and panache” (Holmlund, 105). When Jackie speeds up to avoid being late for work, the camera does not participate in her hurriedness, keeping space with her in a long, tracking shot. Even when events are out of control, Jackie Brown is able to manage them with a sense of style and dignity. In contrast to her earlier iteration, Grier’s Jackie does not end the credits with a gunshot, but a self-assured smile.

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