As a fan of strange and depraved cinema, I’m not adverse to a bit of Russ Meyer from time to time. While having never been a huge fan, I was impressed by a collection of his previous features; more specifically films such as Motor Psycho and Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!. It’s these two films from 1965 that I feel were an influence to anti-hero women in exploitation features. In Motor Psycho the lead hero has a female sidekick bent on vengeance, while in Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! a group of go-go dancers (with a penchant for thrilling drag racing) decide to rob the ranch of a lecherous old man and his two sons.
As a fan of the Blaxploitation sub-genre it seemed that Meyer’s influence and foundations were now stretching into more experimental features. It’s with these handfuls of features that I believe his imprint is found. Meyer also made his presence felt during the short film movement, most notably with his release of Black Snake in 1973. It featured a cruelly strong slave owner on a Caribbean Island who tormented both black and white slaves, leading to an island revolt.
By providing the archetype of the strong and beautiful female dominator in his previous features, it seemed only fitting Meyer should make an appearance in a genre he partly helped to inspire. His strong ethnic females where, in a sense, the first female action stars of exploitation cinema – just look at Varla (Tura Satana) from Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! for instance. With her judo throws and no-holds barred fisticuffs, she was a force to be reckoned with for both sexes. In the case of aggressive and hard-bitten female characters, Blaxploitation cinema has gun totting and powerful sista’s such as Coffy and Cleopatra Jones (both released in 1973). These were liberated female action heroes for a new generation and it’s clear that some of their cinematic DNA is shared with Meyers original deadly females.
I’ts clear his empowered female template was carried over into the leading ladies from the Blaxploitation movement, with women such as Pam Grier, Tamera Dobson and Gloria Hendry showing men just how it should be done. These were hard-hitting gender role reversals and at the time were unflinchingly violent in their actions. In Coffy a nurse decides to wreak vengeance on the drug dealers whose product killed her sister and in the process manages to hold her own with some of the best action icons. Of all the female-led Blaxploitation features, Coffy is the one that is still unflinchingly brutal in its depiction of violence and revenge.
Not only does Coffy use her seductive charms to retrieve valuable information, but she also won’t hesitate in shoving a double barrel into a dealers face and pulling the trigger. She embodies all of the attributes from the go-go dancers of Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! in just the one individual. Educated, deadly and not to be tampered with – Coffy is the ultimate Blaxploitation protagonist. To a lesser extent so is Foxy Brown (again played by Grier and directed by Jack Hill), but she has lost some of the raw aggression that made Coffy so fierce. With this handful of features, Grier (along with director Hill) provided Exploitation with a collection of believable and grounded female anti-heroes, helping to be the basis for others of this ilk.
This goes doubly for Tamera Dobson’s secret agent hero Cleopatra Jones, who convinces most as a trained superspy. In Cleopatra Jones, sensuality gave way to thought-provoking messages of communities being united in stopping local crime. Dobson’s Jones was a tough heroine with the emphasis more on family entertainment and empowerment, rather than titillation and extreme violence. With Jones, fans of Blaxploitation had a heroine that was as wholesome as the movement was likely to get. What also sets it apart is an element of high camp, most notably from Shelly Winters as the lesbian drug dealer Mommy. The over the top performances bring down the overall seriousness that was found in the revenge context of Coffy and Foxy Brown.
It’s clear that the basis of the anti-heroine structure were carried over from some of Meyers back catalogue. These were often strong ethnic characters to root for and ones that have since been ingrained in the memories of exploitation fans alike. With the previously mentioned Black Belt Jones, Gloria Hendry’s Sydney is as much an equal as Jones, using her skill and rarely becoming a damsel in distress. These were characters that would be equal in every department with the men of Blaxploitation. It’s still refreshing to see it now and it’s even clearer that Meyer’s influence was felt in the material.
Of course Meyers female archetype can be seen in a wider variety of grittier Blaxploitation cinema that has elements of Sexploitation peppered throughout it. Films such as Black Mama, White Mama, The Big Bird Cage and Sugar Hill continued to build on the foundations laid by Meyer. At the end of the day this could all be considered a filmic coincidence – as a side note connection Grier was also in Meyers Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. But I like to think that Meyers empowered female characters were the progenitors of the strong, Blaxploitation female anti-hero. Have a watch of some of the features mentioned and see if you agree, it’s certainly interesting to see the wealth of comparisons.