Quentin Tarantino’s fanboy homage to the Blaxploitation films of the 1970s turns twenty-five this year and has aged perfectly. The film is recognizably the work of Tarantino with trademark needle drops, a charismatic script and non-linear narratives; however, Jackie Brown possesses a maturity that sets it apart from the director’s back catalogue.
Criminally underrated in the filmography of Tarantino, Jackie Brown is perhaps his best work, possessing understated performances and a sharp screenplay that shows less of the trademark heightened Tarantino dialogue and more naturalism. Crucially, it has a beautifully romantic core and a stunning lead performance by Blaxploitation screen legend Pam Grier. Grier lights up every shot she’s in with her iconic status in film history infused in every shot with magnificence, to the point where the opening sequence of a seemingly mundane shot of Jackie standing still on a moving walkway, to the soundtrack of Bobby Womack’s ‘110 Street’, has become utterly iconic.
Adapted from Elmore Leonard’s 1992 Novel Rum Punch, Tarantino changes protagonist Jackie Burke, a white woman, to Jackie Brown, referencing Grier’s 1974 classic Foxy Brown in the title. In doing so, Tarantino places a middle-aged Black Woman at the centre of his crime-filled, action-packed drama and therefore changes the narrative to be centred around the hardships of Jackie’s life as a forty-four-year-old Black woman. As the lyrics to the opening song state, she needs “to do whatever it takes to survive” in a society that places her last. Grier plays Jackie Brown with class, always cool, calm and collected and consistently the smartest person in the room; this is unsurprising as Tarantino wrote the role for Grier, which helped reignite her career after she was neglected by Hollywood in the aftermath of the Blaxploitation era.
The film feels, in part, a love letter to the Blaxploitation genre, with the use of soul music, long shots to recreate the low-budget style and, of course, casting the most prominent actress of the genre as the lead. However, what makes Jackie Brown such an intelligent film is its subversion of the harmful Black stereotypes from Blaxploitation. Contrary to her portrayal in Koffee and Foxy Brown, Grier is never objectified or overly sexualized while simultaneously not being de-sexed–as many middle-aged Black women are on screen. Jackie is sexy and her chemistry with love interest Max Cherry, played by the late great Robert Forster, is palpable. The attraction between Jackie and Max makes the film Tarantino’s most romantic venture, soundtracked by The Delfonics’ Didn’t I Blow Your Mind This Time, which Max earnestly plays on repeat in his car with Jackie in his thoughts.
Tarantino further subverts the Blaxploitation stereotypes with the character of Ordell, played with both hilarity and menace by Samuel L. Jackson. Ordell seems representative of the hyper-masculine Blaxploitation male lead with his aptitude for violence, masculine ego and hyper-sexualization of women; Tarantino subverts the stereotype by making him the main antagonist Jackie is always two steps ahead of. Furthermore, contrary to Tarantino’s signature style, violence is at a minimum (by his standards) and not glorified. The film is carried by a strong ensemble cast that lives up to the standard set by Grier, including Bridget Fonda as Melanie and Robert De Niro as Louis, who provide a dysfunctional yet comedic relationship that contrasts with the pure romance of Jackie and Max. The strength of the cast and the well-written characters makes the film such a joy to watch. Despite having a longer run time of two and a half hours, the film is paced excellently. It always allows enough breathing time for character development but is never sluggish; for a movie so constantly intertwined with music Jackie Brown stays at the right rhythm and is always on time.
With a well-written middle-aged Black woman at the forefront of an action flick, Jackie Brown was ahead of its time in 1997 and sadly still seems revolutionary to modern-day audiences 25 years later. Yet two and a half decades on, its cult popularity and timelessness are a testament to the quality of the film; it is as entertaining and intelligent as ever and still to this day Tarantino’s greatest triumph.
Jackie Brown is available to stream on HBO Max in the United States
by Chloë Slater
Chloe (she/her) is a film fanatic and proud northerner hailing from West Yorkshire. She is currently studying an MA in Film Studies at The University of Manchester. She has an affinity for Japanese animation, fantasy films and anything that Greta Gerwig touches! Outside of her love for film, she is a big football fan, supporting Blackburn Rovers. Chloe can also be found playing guitar and bass or watching live music. Favourite films include: Spirited Away, Ladybird, Lost in Translation, Frances Ha, Portrait of a Lady on Fire and The Lord of the Rings Trilogy.