I was tidying up my apartment yesterday and while I was doing this I stopped to stare at my DVD’s. I use to have an enormous collection of DVD’s but after a couple of moves I decided to shed some of the extra bulk, meaning I only have my absolute favourite DVD’s in my possession. This film, Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown is one of my all time favourites. By the standard of Tarantino films this one is often overlooked or disregarded because of its drastic difference from Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and later Kill Bill (Vol.1). However, I believe this film is his best piece of cinematic work. I remember the first time I saw it, it was March break and I was about 17-18 and working at Guvernment Nightclub, and thus was keeping odd hours, this afforded me a lot of free time. I remember being blown away by the opening credit scene, the music, the colours, the cinematography, everything instantly captured me. After watching it again this weekend I am still thoroughly impressed by this opening scene.
The opening scene of Jackie Brown is a cacophony of embedded cultural references and indicators designed to pay homage to the particular genre and actress. The genre is that of the Black Exploitation films of the early 1970’s commonly refereed to as Blaxploitation. As a genre, Blaxploitation films only lasted a couple of years, yet in that short-time dozens upon dozens of films were released. The plots of the majority of these films were simple, conventional, and cookie-cutter enough in their production that I can comfortably generalized them as such. These films were pastiches of established film archetypes ingrained within the general cultural awareness of the movie going public.
The intent of Blaxploitation films was to portray African American’s (and they were American’s not Canadian’s) in a positive light, taking leading roles from the predominately white leading actors of the times. The intent for the most part was to blatantly point out the inequality in the American film system on the micro-scale, but also the inequality of the larger American society as a whole on the macro-scale. However, much like hip-hop in the late 90′s, the movie industry co-opted the genre to use it for their own purposes, that of making money.
The film Jackie Brown starts off with Bobby Womack’s classic song “Across 110th Street” as the introductory production credits begin to roll. Pam Grier, as the character of Jackie Brown enters the shot/scene/screen to the utmost right. She is moving via an automated walkway, and the colours that seemingly slide by her on the LAX wall are reminiscent and invocative to the 1970’s. The credits appear on the screen to the left at about mid height to the character of Jackie. We watch the character moving without movement, with vivid colours, we see her strut through the airport, she is established as a strong character, a cool, smooth, in control woman. However, we see her as the scene progresses starting to look worried and begins to rush to get to work, which then divides or splits our perception of her character, adding the reality of life to the situation. The character of Jackie Brown has been established all the while Bobby Womack is playing.
The intent of this song is to reference the movie of the same name. Across 110th Street was considered by many to be a great film within this particular genre, as it surpassed the limitations and grotesque generalizations of Blaxploitation films. By referencing this, Tarantino is aligning one great movie from the time to his. Moreover, the font that is being used in the opening scene is a facsimile of the front used in the title credits of Pam Grier’s 1974 film Foxy Brown, another groundbreaking film with in the genre. Foxy Brown, was a portrayal of a strong woman protagonist who seeks revenge at the point of a shot gun barrel. It was rare that a leading role would be cast to a black woman, even more so to a woman who is strong, outspoken, sexy and often shown killing white people. Of course lets not get to ahead of ourselves, as these films, though revolutionary were also products of there time and did permeate and perpetuate gender, race, cultural stereotypes. Foxy Brown still has to had to be sexy and scantily clad to kick ass.
It is within this first six minutes that we as the viewer are given all the indicators and prompts to help establish the particular mood and also gives key indicators as to its intent. Tarantino has aligned his film to two of the great Blaxploitation films, and then does something even more interesting. This opening scene bares a close resemblance to Mike Nichols 1967 film The Graduate staring Dustin Hoffman, in which Benjamin (played by Hoffman) is walking through LAX, while Simon and Garfunkal play in the scene. Moreover the walls that he walks by are stark white, and without a doubt I believe that Tarantino is intentionally drawing a contrast to these two views of America depicted within film of around the same era. One is that of the upper-class white American and his existential angst upon returning home after school, and that of the inner-city African American who has non of the advantages. Furthermore, I believe we are suppose to recognize this and see the division in which American society lays (and this was well before the crisis of the locationing/positioning of “the Hispanic”…!). This is not only a critique of American society of the late 1960’s and early 70’s but also very much so of the now (1997, and of course can be applied even today).
Tarantino is a master of the pastiche, taking lots of different source material and making it his own, and he excels at this in Jackie Brown. I strongly recommend you all watch it, either again or for the first time. Just look at what I wrote in regards to the first six minutes of the movie, the rest of the film is jammed packed with this stuff!!
One last side-note that I love about this film and Tarantino’s constant paying homage to his influences comes later on in the movie when Jackie Brown is locked away in prison. The song “Longtime Woman” begins to play, and it is this very song that was performed by Pam Grier in the film The Big Doll House released in 1971. The character of the judge who presides over Jackie’s bail hearing and sends her to prison is played by Sid Haig, and he is one of the actors who plays a bad guy in the film Foxy Brown… AMAZING!!!
Go now, do yourself a favour and watch it.