Black Star is a celebration of the range, versatility and power of black actors on film and TV, taking place in cinemas nationwide, on DVD and on BFI Player, October-December 2016
I vividly remember the morning in March 1998 that I hot-footed it to a near-deserted Leicester multiplex for an opening day screening of Jackie Brown. I’d fancied myself as a cinephile ever since I’d had my impressionable young mind blown watching Pulp Fiction a few years earlier, although, truth be told, my viewing habits hadn’t really expanded beyond whatever happened to be playing in said Leicester multiplex.
I have to confess I was marginally less hyped for the latest Tarantino opus upon learning that it had been passed uncut with a 15 certificate – as a mildly rebellious teen, I was drawn to the filmmaker largely on account of his penchant for eye-popping violence and shockingly subversive set pieces. I took the BBFC verdict as disappointing confirmation that there’d be nothing here to match the illicit thrills of Pulp Fiction’s Gimp scene, which had caused my mother to literally run out of the room in a state of horrified embarrassment, after I’d somehow convinced her to let me watch it with her on VHS at the tender age of 13.
But if Pulp Fiction is a shot of adrenalin administered straight to the heart, Jackie Brown, based on Elmore Leonard’s 1992 novel Rum Punch, is more like a late night drinking session in a smoky dive bar. I was pretty sure I loved it on first viewing, but as a fresh-faced 16-year-old, raised on a steady diet of hyperactive, high-concept blockbusters, its near somnambulant pace threw me for a loop.
I also struggled to gel entirely with its somewhat jaded, world-weary tone – something which, alas, resonates with me more acutely with each subsequent viewing. I was, however, immediately struck by the fact that I’d never before seen a film with a working-class, middle-aged black woman taking centre stage as the hero. When I was recently invited to vote in the BFI Black Star poll for my all-time favourite black screen performances, Pam Grier’s astonishing turn here was the very first thing that came to mind. Even today, the best part of 20 years later, roles like this remain almost virtually non-existent in mainstream American cinema.
Grier shot to cult stardom in the early 70s as the first African American female action star, headlining blaxploitation hits like Coffy (1973) and Foxy Brown (1974). In Jackie Brown, she retains the most appealing aspects of her established screen persona – her unapologetic sexuality, her unwavering cool in the face of major adversity – but Tarantino’s depiction of a drab, down-at-heel Los Angeles is immeasurably more complex and convincing than the caricaturish netherworld of pimps, hustlers and addicts she inhabits in those early films.
Jackie’s situation in life isn’t exactly rosy. Aged 44, she supplements her meagre income as a stewardess for a low-cost airline by smuggling money from Mexico for menacing gunrunner Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson). When she’s caught with dirty cash by a couple of ATF agents, she’s forced to cooperate with them to help bring Robie down. But Jackie flat-out refuses to play the role of helpless victim, and as plans for a sting operation develop, she spots a risky opportunity to double-cross both parties and walk away a whole lot wealthier, with her dignity intact.
As compelling and satisfying as the crime plot is, the ace up the film’s sleeve is the sublimely nuanced relationship that blossoms between Jackie and bail bondsman Max Cherry (Robert Forster). While Max is plainly smitten at first sight, Jackie plays her cards much closer to her chest. A natural rapport develops as the pair bond over their shared experience of growing older, and all the small disappointments this invariably entails.
The chemistry between them seems palpable, but the way in which Jackie so flawlessly manipulates others forces us to at least consider the possibility that she may be simply using him as a pawn in her masterplan. This adds an intriguing element of ambiguity to one of the most quietly electrifying unconsummated romances in screen history. Their final scene together is, I’d argue, the most moving, acutely observed moment in Tarantino’s entire filmography.
Today, the film represents a decisive turning point in the director’s career. Perhaps as a consequence of its underwhelming box office performance, its slightly muted initial critical response, and the fact that he had to share authorial credit with Leonard, Tarantino swerved away from the more mature, contemplative direction he seemed to be heading in, and instead doubled down on the self-conscious stylishness and punkish provocations that put him on the map in the first place.
It’s an approach to filmmaking that continues to sporadically chime with my inner teenager – I love Kill Bill’s blood-drenched fight sequences, and the sheer irreverent audacity of Inglourious Basterds (2009). But the problem is, Jackie Brown, and Grier’s performance in particular, got me hooked on an altogether more grown-up brand of cinema, one which takes place in something approaching the real world, and which revels in the complexity of human emotion and experience.
Having proven himself a master when operating in a more low-key register, it seems almost churlish that Tarantino has thus far denied us a worthy follow-up. For the time being, we can merely cherish Jackie Brown as a glorious one-off.