Pam Grier as 'Foxy Brown', 1974. Courtesy AIP/Photofest.
Blaxploitation films were not particularly hospitable environments for actresses. Utilized more often than not simply as eye candy, women generally found minor roles that portrayed them as accessories to powerful men. A small subset of Blaxploitation movies, however, revised this archetype and presented a femme fatale who is now an integral part of the history of African American cinema.
The first Blaxploitation film to put a woman in the title role was 1973's Coffy. Coffy, portrayed by Pam Grier, is a nurse-turned-vigilante who exacts revenge on a number of underworld figures whom she blames for her family's involvement in the drug trade. Coffy is unafraid to use her feminine charms to take advantage of male villains, and the film was controversial for sustaining the notion of hypersexualized African American heroes that arose alongside Blaxploitation cinema. Nevertheless, Coffy was a hit with audiences and brought new life to Blaxploitation, which had already been identified as a formulaic genre a couple of years into its existence.
Pam Grier would go on to further notoriety in the title role of the 1974 film Foxy Brown, where she plays a character who, like Coffy, wreaks righteous havoc upon a wide swath of the criminal underground. Foxy Brown was originally intended to be a sequel to Coffy, and the films share the same director and studio. It was Pam Grier, however, who stood out as the force driving the films' popularity. Roger Ebert, for example, noted in his otherwise-negative review of Coffy that she "has a kind of physical life to her that is sometimes missing in beautiful actresses. [...] [S]he gets into an action role and does it right." Grier's performances in these films, as well as later turns in Sheba, Baby (1975) and the Blaxploitation homage Jackie Brown (1997), would come to define one possible vision of the empowered African American woman in the late twentieth century.