Every Girl for Herself: 'Jackie Brown' at 25 - Film Cred (2024)

“How do you feel about getting old?” It’s not normally a question that concerns auteurs at the dawn of a critically-lauded career, but it’s the one that Quentin Tarantino, at the ripe age of 34, was concerned with asking with his third film, Jackie Brown. It’s also a question that becomes all the more relevant as the film itself gets on in years. This month marks its 25th anniversary: if the film were flesh and blood like you and me, it would be staring down the barrel of a quarter-life crisis. But age sits differently with a work of art. It gives it a distinction, and a relevance that keeps people talking, debating, deconstructing.

Jackie Brown warrants its fair share of deconstruction as a piece of art. It represents an interesting blip in Tarantino’s filmography: compared to other entries in his flashy, blood-soaked oeuvre, it’s downright demure. Jackie is obviously a Tarantino film in its bones — its reliance on character and pitch-perfect soundtrack prove that most Tarantino films are hangout movies at their core — but its quiet meditation on the passage of time still makes it the black sheep of the bunch. Still, that’s all the more reason to love it for what it is. It’s not just a clever subversion of the films of the blaxploitation era, but a Trojan horse that ushered its star, Pam Grier, back into the limelight.

Every Girl for Herself: 'Jackie Brown' at 25 - Film Cred (1)

Like so many cinematic staples of the ‘70s, Tarantino was enamored with Grier. As the story goes, he and Grier first met in an office that was covered with posters of her, in everything from Coffy to Sheba, Baby. Looking at Grier now — and studying the performances that put her on the map — it’s not hard to see why Tarantino was so obsessed. She was arguably the first Black female action star, and one of the brightest stars of the ‘70s full-stop. Grier cut a lean, mean figure as the “one-chick hit squad” of the era, and spent the decade carving out a comfortable, unapologetic niche in the space between blaxploitation and its racier, more violent cousin (aptly dubbed “sexploitation”). Even as the subgenres faded from relevance, Grier continued to work consistently, but the ‘90s weren’t nearly so precious with her legacy. In the years that elapsed between her last big hit and Jackie Brown, Grier had settled comfortably into relative obscurity. It was Tarantino that invited the world to gaze upon her once more, to recognize the star that had never left. Rather than drop her in the center of a guns-blazing pastiche of ‘70s cinema, Tarantino peeled back the layers of the blaxploitation formula to reconstruct the image of the “Strong Black Woman” within. Jackie — and, by extension, Grier — became his center, which built a surprisingly gentle character study around the frame of an excellent heist film.

We first lay eyes on Jackie in the stylized, subdued one-shot that opens the film. She glides gracefully into frame — riding a people-mover, of all things — dressed in her stewardess uniform for D-list Mexican airline Cabo Air. Jackie has the air of a woman from another world: timeless enough to turn heads and effortlessly cool, but still clinging to a bygone era. As she reveals later in the film, she never subscribed to the digital music revolution of the early ‘80s. She’s invested too much time and money collecting vinyl to start anew. It’s a careful, casual line that reveals a lot about Jackie, and it’s a bit like a metaphor for her life.

It’s important to know that Jackie was not always a stewardess with Cabo Air. A long time ago, she worked for a much more prestigious airline, until she was busted carrying drugs for her then-husband, a pilot. Thirteen years and a spectacular fall from grace later, Jackie lives miles below the poverty line, taking home less than $16,000 a year — which she supplements by smuggling cash across the border for gun-runner Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson). It’s not pretty, but it’s all she can do to survive. Everything seems to be going just fine until she returns to Los Angeles with $50,000 in her purse…and two cops waiting for her at the airport. Naturally, it’s not Jackie they want, but the man pulling Jackie’s strings. The LAPD doesn’t know everything about Ordell’s operation, but they’ve gleaned enough to catch Jackie in the act, and they’ve no qualms about sending her to jail if she refuses to tell them what they want to know.

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Jackie isn’t really afraid of incarceration. It’s preferable to dealing with Ordell, who may or may not have murdered another associate for squealing to the Feds. And the sentence would be relatively short: less than two years inside and probation for the same amount of time — but as the smarmy Detective Dargus (Michael Bowen) so acutely observes, Jackie doesn’t really have that time to waste. If she were still in her 30s, she could put her life on hold and find a way to start over after, but there’s no starting over for a 40-something-year-old Black woman who’s exhausted every viable option, who’s been circling the drain for longer than she can remember. “Didn’t exactly set the world on fire, did you, Jackie?” Dargus asks, rhetorically, spitefully. She hasn’t: they all know it. She’s tried to be clever, to find new ways to keep her head above water, but each time it backfires, she seems to sink lower. There is no starting over for Jackie, not without some serious cash and a clean slate from the Feds. The only way out of this mess is through.

It’s been said that Jackie is a natural evolution of the archetype that Grier helped create in the ‘70s. There’s a reason she shares a surname with one of her most iconic characters, Foxy Brown: according to Grier herself, Jackie was Tarantino’s reimagining of Foxy; a version who had spent 20 years caught in the crossfire of her own life. There are definitely similarities in the situations that drive them down paths of vengeance, but the ways they react to those situations couldn’t be more different. Foxy, like many blaxploitation heroines, is motivated by a maternal instinct. Her thirst for vengeance is extreme, and she handles her business with a ferocity that lives on today only in the John Wick cinematic universe. That said, it all stems from a desire to redeem the Black community (and, more specifically, a loved one) from the industries that have stolen their lives in some way or another. She is a one-woman war on drugs and prostitution, and there is no limit to what she’ll do to stop it.

Foxy puts her own body on the line for her community: she is raped and given drugs against her will. She suffers, but she keeps going because she understands that this happens every day, to so many people who look like her, and she’ll be damned if she lets it continue. That she’s able to throw even a taste of that suffering back on those that inflicted it is enough to inspire catharsis — and the fact that she rallies the Black Panthers to the cause leaves a poignant message beneath all the grime and sleaze in Foxy Brown.

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Given that blaxploitation came hot on the heels of the Black Liberation Movement and the fight for civil rights at large, it makes sense that Foxy was modeled after the matriarchs of those movements. There’s a clear homage to Kathleen Cleaver in her perfectly-coiffed afro, one that the film alludes to with clever shot design. Her methods strongly remind the viewer of Black Liberation Army members like Assata Shakur, and Foxy’s desire to uplift the community echoes sentiments from Angela Davis. That attitude of solidarity and sacrifice informed the best entries of the genre, but like Grier and her contemporaries, it was largely forgotten in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and that shift manifests palpably in Jackie Brown.

Jackie is an island. It may not have always been that way, but it’s abundantly clear where trusting other people has gotten her. She’s learned to fend for herself, to protect herself — because if she won’t, then who will? Her cynicism is a direct reflection of the anxieties that Black women have been harboring for decades. Malcolm X famously named the Black woman the most disrespected and least protected person in America, and it’s as true now as it was when he said it in 1962. Black women have always upheld the community, often at the expense of their own well-being. Yet that work is rarely recognized, leaving them with no relief. The ‘90s saw a rise in the “belligerent” Black woman — and in its white counterpart, the ‘90s Bitch — for this very reason. Women were waking up to the fact that life in the 21st century (and, why lie, every century before it) was largely transactional. The gender equality they’d worked for was still no closer to being realized, and they were no longer comfortable giving everything and getting nothing in return.

But can you really blame them? And can you blame Jackie for being a little selfish?

For the record, Jackie is properly self-interested. She “borrows” a gun from her lovestruck bail bondsman, Max Cherry (Robert Forster), so that she can hold her own against Ordell when he inevitably comes calling. She quietly relishes the fact that her ex-husband was sent to jail 13 years ago, while she took a plea deal and got off with parole. She’s prepared to strike another deal now, one that will take Ordell out of the picture and leave his $500,000 nest egg in Mexico ripe for the taking. But only if she can secure immunity with the cops: “Otherwise, f*ck ’em.” Jackie prides herself on being clever, on her ability to bend the rules to her will. She is not out to bring down an institution, or to relieve her community. As far as she sees it, they left her behind a long time ago. She’s out to get what she is owed — and by the time the credits roll, she’ll have done just that. How often can that be said for a Black woman with so much to lose?

Every Girl for Herself: 'Jackie Brown' at 25 - Film Cred (4)

In any other context, Jackie Brown would be the cautionary tale. In any other narrative, her pride would not be a virtue; it would be her downfall. Jackie is an island, and she’s surrounded on all sides by people who see her as nothing but a means to an end. On one side, you have Ordell and his gang of burnouts: the anti-aspirational, perpetually-stoned Melanie (Bridget Fonda) and the hapless Louis Gara (Robert De Niro). On the other, you have Detective Dargas and his ATF associate Ray Nicolette (Michael Keaton). Each of them wants Ordell’s money for one reason or another, and each of them will underestimate Jackie in their pursuit of it. It’s their first, and greatest, mistake, because Jackie is not a means to an end. She’s Yojimbo — a ronin in the body of a blaxploitation goddess. She will outsmart them all, double-cross the worst of them, and let the careless ones pick each other off one by one. In the end, Jackie will be the last one standing. No longer disrespected; no longer vulnerable; no longer afraid of her future, or of her age.

“How do you feel about getting old?” It’s a question that Jackie asks Max during their second meeting. They dance around the subject for a moment, discussing the surface-level issues: hair loss, weight gain. Then Jackie gets real, maybe for the first time since we’ve met her. “I always feel like I’m starting over,” she confesses, echoing Dargus’ snarky deduction. “I’ve been waiting on people for 20 years.” Now, in the autumn of her life, she has no one but herself. Like Foxy Brown, like Coffy, like so many women in so many places, Jackie has been reduced to her utility. Her waning youth is synonymous with her fruitless life. It would be easy to discount her as a middle-aged Black woman with nothing left to give; it’s the stance that everyone around her seems happy to assume. But that’s not something they get to decide. It’s Jackie’s life, and it’s not over until she says it is. She’ll be somebody, even if it means setting the world on fire to make it happen.

Every Girl for Herself: 'Jackie Brown' at 25 - Film Cred (2024)
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