Quentin Tarrantino’s Jackie Brown reworks some of the most famous signs of the 1970s into a 1990s setting. Pam Grier, one of the most successful and easily recognizable Blaxploitation actresses from the early 1970s plays the eponymous protagonist. Tarrantino relies heavily on popular music from the earlier era to add depth to his filmic canvas. These elements and others contribute to the stunning beauty of the text and provide richness to the modernist narrative.
The opening scene is a long take profile shot of the protagonist Jackie Brown moving through the Los Angeles airport. She dominates the shot and the rest of the film with her beauty and her presence. The role of Coffy in 1971 Coffy propelled Grier into the spotlight as an actress and as a Black sex icon throughout the 1970s. However, Jackie Brown does not use her as such. Her more mature age and better developed acting ability are honored with her complex and brilliant character and modest apparel. She is still as beautiful and strong as the feminist Black power warriors she played for American International Pictures. Tarrantino highlights this by focusing his camera and his narrative on her ability to dupe the law and the gun-runner Ordell.
By highlighting her talent and non-sexual beauty, Tarrantino moves his film beyond the boundaries of exploitation. Grier’s body is honored not objectified, which is juxtaposed with the camera’s gaze upon Melanie’s surfer body. Melanie is treated as an object for sex and visual exploitation, but Jackie is far from that. Her only relationship in the film is her quasi-romantic relationship with Max. It does not approach sex and borders on exploitation of him as a pawn for her scheme to earn a little extra money. In fact, it isn’t until the very close of the film that Grier shows any emotion for him though that is still debatable. Grier’s image is sacred to the filmmaker and to the audience as an ever-improving relic of the by-gone era of Black media products in this country.
Another relic of the by-gone era is the popular music soundtrack employed by Tarrantino. The soundtrack provides legitimacy to the homage text and advances the narrative through dialectic discourse. The opening and close of the film are the title track from Barry Shear’s Across 110th Street, a Blaxploitation film from 1972. The lyrics refer to the dangers of life on the streets and the tribulations of poverty. While Jackie Brown is anything but impoverished, she is still disappointed with her life history and her success to this point. She also is committing to ripping off not only a major crime lord but also several bodies of law enforcement in order to improve her lot in life. Juxtaposing the narrative song lyrics with the non-action of the opening and closing long takes advances the narrative. Tarrantino also employs the dialectic technique when Jackie entertains Max at her house after getting out of jail with the diegetic track “Didn’t I Blow Your Mind This Time.” His love for her is developing even as Jackie is planning some way to use him as part of her plan.
Tarrantino employs various symbols of the Blaxploitation movement to hearken back to an earlier era, but Jackie Brown is not a Blaxploitation film. Pam Grier’s body is revered and celebrated as mature, timeless beauty. She is not objectified as an object of sex, nor does she succumb to the gaze of the camera. In addition to the presence of the biggest female star, the music of the film also hearkens back to a previous age. However, dialectic discourse of audio and visual track help the audience to make more meaning of this film than a homage to a by-gone genre. Jackie is not a Black version of any white hero; she is her own hero, which extends Jackie Brown past the exploitation genre.