In 1985, American cartoonist Alison Bechdel proposed a test that most films would still fail. ‘I have this rule see,’ says an unnamed character in Bechdel’s strip Dykes to Watch Out For, ‘I only go to a movie if it satisfies three basic requirements. One, it has to have at least two women in it who, two, talk to each other about, three, something besides a man.’ In her 2009 book One-Dimensional Woman, Nina Power quotes science fiction writer Charles Stross’s provocative suggestion that even more films would be struck out if the third requirement was extended to include marriage and babies. ‘What is so frightening about women talking to each other,’ asks Power, ‘without the mediation of their supposed interest in men/marriage/babies?’
Jack Hill’s Foxy Brown (1974) is, today, a film more spoken of than seen – largely due to the patronage of professional film geeks like Quentin Tarantino. But despite the obvious star power of its lead Pam Grier, whose charisma is apparent in every scene she so effortlessly steals, Foxy Brown deserves far more respect than its reputation as a female Shaft. This is a film with tense pre-fight stand-offs worthy of a Sergio Leone western and a sense of criminal conspiracy implicating the highest echelons comparable to the contemporaneous paranoid thrillers of Alan Pakula and Sidney Pollack. It is likewise notable for a depiction of racism and racial exploitation that is at all times explicitly institutionally grounded and historically situated. Apart from anything else, few films – and even fewer films made at that time by male directors – pass the Bechdel Test with such flair.
The beau of Foxy herself is disposed of in the first act. From then on, male characters are always at best pathetic losers and at worst psychopathic sadists, the only exceptions being the Black Panther-worshipping neighbourhood watch committee, who ride in like the cavalry in the final act. Fortunately, the women in this film are more than capable of taking care of everything – from business to justice – by themselves. Even when Foxy Brown is (literally) castrating one of the bad guys, it is only in order to send a message to another woman. In a reversal of the normal cinematic situation in which a female body is reduced to an object of symbolic exchange between men; here it is the phallus which becomes pure sign value in an exchange between women.
But if sex becomes a medium of exchange – whether as in the previously mentioned member in a bottle or the way prostitution is here presented as a crucial link between the drug trade and political power – what of work itself? Foxy Brown famously has no job, a consequence of the fact that the film was originally written as a sequel to Coffy (in which Pam Grier’s character is a nurse) only for the producers to change their mind too late for extensive rewrites. Yet, the film has a surprising amount to say about the question of labour.
There is Foxy’s brother, Link Brown (Antonio Fargas) complaining about the lack of employment options for a black man in America (a speech inspired by James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time). Even more telling, however, is a line that serves no narrative purpose whatsoever, spoken by a nameless character, and which seems at first to bear little relation to any of the rest of the action. “Working in a factory’s no life,’ says one woman to another in a bar, ‘It turns you into a fucking machine. I’m a god damn lady. I don’t need to be a fucking machine.’ It’s a normal rule of thumb in script editing that any line that doesn’t need to be there be cut. Yet again, this line serves no plot function, nor does it develop character. It very superfluity points paradoxically to something essential.
On the one hand, this could be director Jack Hill himself, complaining about the industrial grind of working for Corman’s American International Pictures (the DVD commentary is pretty much entirely taken up by Hill’s complaints about his lack of control over the picture and disrespectful treatment at the hands of the studio). But even more, Foxy Brown is a film about how prostitution instrumentalises and industrialises sex – and how capitalism makes prostitution the paradigm of all labour, such that we all find ourselves turning into fucking machines.
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