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Images of Women in Jackie Brown

by Judith Grant, University of Southern California (December 1997)

Quentin Tarantino’s films tend to be a little over the top on the masculinity scale. Both Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction can be read as elaborate morality plays about masculinity and honor.  The main characters in the brilliant and bloody Reservoir Dogs, for instance, are all enmeshed in the problems of loyalty and honor.  Harvey Keitel, following a thief’s honor, is true to the wrong man (Mr. Orange) who turns out to be an undercover cop (and thus, beholden to another kind of honor).  Mr. Orange, in turn, is not betrayed by his law enforcement brother who refuses to blow his cover even when he is tortured by the sadistic Mr. White.

Pulp Fiction, in turn, can literally be seen as a series of vignettes about men and loyalty.  The most striking example is the story involving Bruce Willis.  Recall that after making a narrow escape, he returns to an unimaginably weird scene involving man-on-man sexual violence.  It evokes the film Deliverance which is, not incidentally, another story about male honor.  Willis’ character goes back to save his arch enemy from rape even though he has every reason to believe that doing so will get him killed.  But saving another’s masculinity is simply the right thing for him to do.  He is, after all, following in the footsteps of DeNiro and Brando in portraying that great cinematic symbol of the honorable male: a boxer.

The fact that men have been so important to Tarantino is what makes his latest film, Jackie Brown, so surprising.  The film is still about men and their relationships to each other as they are mediated through women (in that, it is very like Pulp Fiction).   But more than Tarantino’s other films, this one attempts to feature a female viewpoint.  In truth, most of the women in the film are fairly average Hollywood film women. There is a bitchy, “skanky,” stoned-out young blond; a backwoods young woman who seems almost mentally retarded, and a big Sophie Tucker type cast as a simple good-time mama. These less developed characters do not particularly transcend Hollywood stereotypes.  But, in many ways, the main character does move beyond them.

Jackie Brown, is played with astonishing depth by the voluptuous veteran of Blacksploitation films, Pam Grier.  And Grier’s Jackie Brown is cool.  She is smart enough to outwit the cold-blooded villain played by Sam Jackson.  And though she is alone, it is implied that she is not lonely for male companionship.  The hard knocks she has taken on the street have not made her bitter or ugly.  When she enlists the help of the love-sick bail agent in an illegal scheme against both the cops and the bad guys, she does not become selfish or shrewish as other film-noir heroines have ( think of Barbara Stanwick in Double Indemnity, for example).  Instead, Tarantino’s Brown is more like a prototypical male hero who is allowed a complexity of character sufficient to allow good and bad to co-exist without fear of cinematic retribution.  In short, Brown does not die at the end of the film.

Brown is a survivor with the kind of street savvy that allows her to see her one chance to save her life while escaping the kind of poverty for which she is destined as a middle-aged, single black woman with few salable skills.   The film opens and closes with a long shot of her alone and moving symbolizing the extent to which this is Brown’s story, alone.  Like the 1996 film, Set It Off, Jackie Brown explores the terrain of Black women who are basically good people but who turn to crime with mixed results. Yes, she does come to enjoy the spoils of conquest, but without love or friendship.  The message is ultimately that, like male heroes, she prevails in some sense because she is alone.

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