“Me, I’m going down kicking and screaming, and I’ll have someone’s eye in my hand.”
You might think this a quote from the pretty lips of Kill Bill’s eye-plucking Bride, Uma Thurman. But no, it’s a vow by Pam Grier, the queen of 1970s “blaxploitation” cinema, as stated in What It Is ... What It Was!; The Black Film Explosion of the ’70s in Words and Pictures.
Grier plays the titular character in Quentin Tarantino’s third film, Jackie Brown. In Kill Bill Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, together Tarantino’s fourth film, the lead character, The Bride, aka The Black Mamba, aka Mommy, aka “The cutest little blond pussy you’ve ever seen,” acts out Grier’s stated vow to pluck out the eyes of those who have violently offended her (one of the Kill Bill Vol. 2’s best scenes is when Thurman snatches Daryl Hannah’s character’s eye out and smashes it gruesomely into the floor). Does this eye-plucking vengeance alone root Kill Bill in blaxploitation cinema? No.
There’s more, like Tarantino’s creation in Kill Bill of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad, which echoes the band of black, white, brown and yellow she-killers often portrayed in blaxplotation flicks such as Savage Sisters (1974) and She Devils in Chains (1976). And then there’s the use of the standard blaxploitation theme: righteous revenge.
Thurman’s cool, lily-white Bride seems the photographic negative of Grier’s hot, full-bodied mamas in iconic blaxploitation flicks. But Tarantino is an ironist who juxtaposes, twists and expands stock characters and plots into something unique. Plugging his pale bride into a blaxploitation-esque plot is this year’s model of his genius.
“I think she embodies the human will and spirit to win and heal and survive against all the odds and all the bad things that happen to her. She’s not very good at being a victim,” says Grier of the Jackie Brown character. The description fits The Bride.
David Walker, the editor and publisher of the magazine BadAzz MoFo, says “blaxploitation” was coined by the head of the NAACP’s Hollywood chapter, Junius Griffen, in a 1972 Variety magazine article titled, “NAACP Blasts Super Nigger Trend.”
Super nigger? In What It Is ...What It Was!, actor Samuel L. Jackson, Tarantino’s incarnation of blaxploitation’s iconic Shaft, says of the genre: “The important thing to remember about those films in the ’70s is that it’s our [black America’s] mythology. It’s our kind of Hercules and Homer and all that stuff ... all those people that Pam Grier played are mythological heroes.”
Grier’s Foxy Brown and Richard Roundtree’s Shaft, in other words, are black super- heroes.
In Kill Bill, David Carradine’s Bill offers up an essay on Superman, comparing The Bride to the superhero. In Bill’s analysis, Superman is unique in that he was born a superhero. Clark Kent’s business suit and horn-rimmed glasses are Superman’s costume, his reflection of “regular humans.”
Other superheroes like Batman and Spiderman were regular humans who had superpowers thrust upon them in traumatic events, such as the vicious deaths of Bruce Wayne’s parents and Peter Parker’s radioactive spider bite. They dress up as superheroes, whereas Superman’s powers are his birthright, Bill says.
Like Superman, blaxploitation’s heroes and heroines shed their traditional costumes, the uniforms of black-skinned service, to reveal their true, black power, a power that is shared by a white woman in Thurman’s blaxploitation-style superheroine.
(For another take on the Kill Bill movies, check out arts editor Lisa M. Collins’ article, “Camp worship.”)
James Keith La Croix writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.