Blaxplotation and film noir in Jackie Brown (1997)

Quentin Tarantino has long been dedicated to create movies based on the films he loves and will commonly combine two separate genres to create a highbred film. In his 1997 film, Jackie Brown, Quentin Tarantino pays homage to two unique genres; film noir and blaxplotation. While these two genres are not entirely separate, Tarantino divides these film types through the two protagonists, Jackie Brown and Max Cherry.

As a fan of blaxplotation films from the 70’s and 80’s there are certain characteristics that define the genre. While I have not seen all of the films in the genre, I have seen most of the classics. The most notable are Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song, Shaft, Domlemite, Superfly, Across 110th Street, Coffy, and Foxy Brown. The clear attribute that characterizes blaxplotation is that the plots and characters are centered around African Americans. The protagonists are always black and the plots will often mirror social struggles of the day. The stories will regularly consist of the protagonists fighting against the man, a white villain who represents the establishment. Another feature of blaxplotations are the soundtracks which regularly use funk, soul, and R&B. The most notable are Isaac Hayes’s “Theme from Shaft,” Curtis Mayfield’s classic social album Superfly, and Bobby Womack’s “Across 110th Street.” The movies also share many characteristics with classic film noirs.  A film like Shaft, one of the most well known and reviewed blaxplotation films, can be classified as a film noir. The settings of both genres are inner-city and will frequently depict urban decay. The urban decay of blaxplotation is often conveyed through themes of poverty, prostitution, drugs, post war anxiety, and racism. The films also share many stock characters. For example, protagonists like Shaft and Dolemite are very much hard boiled detectives.

When you watch the opening scene of Jackie Brown, it is clear that Tarantino is drawing upon classic blaxplotation films. We open the film with a tile screen with the opening credits emerging. In the background is Bobby Womack’s classic blaxplotation anthem “Across 110th Street.” The song is also played during the end of the film which suggests a circular motion which is common in film noir. As the scene progresses we see our title character, Jackie Brown. Jackie Brown is played by Pam Grier, an actress who received fame while staring in blaxplotation films like Coffy and Foxy Brown. The name Jackie Brown is probably influenced by her previous film Foxy Brown.  The two title characters also are working women who barely get through and are thrown into violent circumstances. The racial social message of Jackie Brown is less blatant than blaxplotation movies of the past. While watching the film, you are under the impression that Jackie is restricted due to moving up in social class due to race and gender. Besides using “Across 110th Street,” Tarantino’s choice of soundtrack mirrors blaxplotation. When Ordell and Beaumont are walking outside, a funky base is present, which is similar to scenes used in Superfly.

The other protagonist in the film is Max Cherry, who takes on the form of classic film noir protagonists. Max Cherry can be defined as a standard protagonist at a disadvantage. He is quiet but also strong in nature. While watching I felt as though Max does not belong in the L.A. environment. In the L.A. environment, he seems very lonely and his one friend is his employee. Max is controlled by obsession and completely idolizes Jackie. From Max’s point of view, Jackie can be considered a femme fatal. He idolizes her and his obsession almost lead to his death. He buys and listens to her music, the Delfonics, when in the car. In the end of the movie he moves on from his obsession and the two characters separate. The two protagonists represent both genres of film, which blend together in terms of story.

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