Jackie Brown sits in a white robe, cherry red nails curled around a coffee mug, as she laments getting older with bondsman Max Cherry.
“I bet that, except for possibly an Afro, you look exactly the way you did at 29,” says Max.
The line is funny, because we know it’s true. Cinema-going audiences of Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown (1997) were most likely familiar with Pam Grier’s face. With her
film career beginning two decades earlier in the 70s blaxploitation era, Pam Grier kicked ass in cute, curve hugging outfits, becoming one of the first “female action heroes” on screen. No mean feat, either, when most exploitation films featured women as wailing damsels or sexual objects, vacant bodies that did little more than grant the male heroes an audience for their escapades.
But Pam Grier became something else, something more. Playing lead role Foxy in Foxy Brown (1974), it’s difficult not to fall in love with Grier. She’s giggly and girlish with her man, but straight-faced and no bullshit in a tight situation. From a gentleman’s club, to a bar fight, to a meeting with an all-male black vigilante justice group reminiscent of the Black Panthers, Grier’s Foxy dominates every scene with a poised but “can you believe I’m wasting my evening on this mess?” air.
It’s no surprise she captured the attention of director Jack Hill in the seventies, or that two decades later, Tarantino re-wrote Elmore Leonard’s novel Rum Punch, making the lead character African-American and changing her name from Jackie Burke to Jackie Brown in homage to Grier’s role as Foxy.
And from the opening scene of Jackie Brown, where Grier makes her way down an airport travelator, it would have been evident to viewers that she does, indeed, look exactly the way she did twenty years before.
Except for the Afro.
In Foxy Brown, the Afro that Pam Grier sports became iconic of itself. The perfectly rounded, picked out ‘fro has long been a symbol of the 70s and the black civil rights movement of that era. In the film, plastered on the wall in the scene with the would-be black panthers, there is even an image of Black Panther party member Kathleen Neal Cleaver, who sported perhaps the most famous Afro in the movement other than Angela Davis. And when, in the scenes final climax, Foxy pulls out a handgun that has been hidden within her hair, the hairstyle itself takes on a (improbable and absurd, in all fairness) role itself within the film.
With this considered, it’s not surprising that Jackie’s lack of an Afro was written into the exchange between Jackie and Max. It was such a staple of Grier’s seventies heroines that the lack of it throughout the film is, perhaps, almost unexpected.
Except, as someone born in the nineties, I came across Jackie Brown far sooner than I did Foxy Brown, and still well over a decade after its original release. To a viewer unfamiliar with Grier’s earlier work this line from Max Cherry seems somewhat bold.
In 2016, the politics of natural hair movements are hard to avoid as a black woman. With articles being written every few months about the appropriation of black hairstyles by white celebrities, and the natural hair movements push to empower black women not to feel pressured by euro-centric beauty standards, viewing Jackie Brown through this modern gaze (and without the context of Foxy Brown), gives the line an entitled edge. By being bold enough to assume that Jackie once had an Afro and now she does not, it almost seems to suggest that Jackie, in her middle-age, has succumbed to the power of Eurocentric beauty and conformity.
To make this assumption seems both at odds with Max’s docile character and Jackie’s dauntless presence. In all other aspects, Jackie Brown is a character that does exactly as she wants. Her hair is no exception to this. In fact, as they’re having this conversation, Jackie’s hair is freshly blown-out and frizzy, not yet styled into the slick, kangol cap-covered curls we see in other scenes. Her unstyled hair, along with her bathrobe, is an indicator that Jackie is not so bothered about always accommodating her appearance in ways deemed acceptable by society’s standards.
When Viola Davis’ removed her wig in a scene on How To Get Away With Murder, a process that many black women go through daily, it was reacted to with shock. It was rare to see this very common act on screen, and there was a power in showing the processes black women go to before presenting themselves as composed and together for the world’s ease. With this being such a rarity in the current landscape of portrayals of black women, seeing Jackie Brown so comfortable with her hair un-styled in her own home whilst a guest is visiting has an unintended power. It is a reality not often seen on screen today.
Considering that Jackie Brown is almost twenty years old, it is a shame that I, as a modern viewer, can be so moved by these scenes. One would assume that time would have meant it has become more acceptable to see black women doing and undoing their hair, not less. Yet this surprise is nothing when pitted against the power of hair styling in Foxy Brown.
Seeing a woman with natural hair sans twist-outs, braids or protective styles is rare on our current screens, but Foxy not only rocks an Afro, she doesn’t limit herself to it. Alongside her staple hairstyle, she wears a variety of wigs in differing colours and cuts, as well as head-wraps and hats. Viewing this as a teenager in the early 2010s, I could honestly say that I had never before seen a film where a black woman could be so carefree, expressive, playful, and unbothered about her hair before. Too often, we see images that depict black women as either/or: they will be natural, or they will have straight hair and weaves. In reality, many black women are both, depending on when you see them, and Foxy Brown displays this.
Without perhaps meaning to, both Foxy Brown and Jackie Brown show the relationship black women have with their hair, whether natural or not. It changes. It grows. It’s versatile. And it doesn’t always look the way society expects it to. It should not be a shock to see this depicted on screen, and by now, viewers should be used to seeing an average black woman’s hair in all the ways we see it for ourselves every day. We should not have to wait every twenty years for another Pam Grier lead to remind us, and if we must, then we’re definitely due for another.
Varaidzo is a black mixed-race writer based in South East London. Her work consists of fiction, poetry and pop culture reviews. Raised by the internet, her focus is currently centred around exploring stories of the African diaspora in the digital age. Find her on Twitter @veedzo
The Black Star series of articles will coincide with BFI’s Black Star film series. Over ten weeks, we will bring you articles which explore the films in the series, the issues they highlight and the stars who have played such an important role in the history of film. Curated by Grace Barber-Plentie.
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