[A script of the video essay follows:]
Quentin and Pam’s Big Score, Part 1
Things don’t look good for Beaumont Livingston. His self-proclaimed benefactor, Ordell Robbie, has just posted $10,000 to bail bondsman Max Cherry in exchange for Beaumont’s release. Armed with a pump shotgun and way too much information about Ordell’s gun-running business, Beaumont faces not only the inside of a trunk, but a potential 10 year rap unless he cooperates with the Feds. Ordell bails him out because he believes “Beaumont’s going to do anything Beaumont can to keep from doing them ten years, including telling the Federal gov’ment any, and every motherfucking thing about my Black ass.” Beaumont already has, and ATF agent Ray Nicolet is laying in wait for yet another of Ordell’s “employees,” a flight attendant with $50,000, an unbeknownst 42 grams of blow and no intention of declaring either at customs.
Mr. Livingston, I presume, expects Ordell to deliver on his promise of a late night chowdown at Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles. That Los Angeles institution is tasty enough to make a brother spoon with a spare tire in a vintage American automobile. But in his haste and hunger, Beaumont Livingston forgot two things: One, all that greasy, fried shit’ll kill you. And two, if you’re a character in a Quentin Tarantino movie, and Samuel L. Jackson shows up looking like the Crypt Keeper and offering you a ride,
Don’t get in the car.
The Beaumont sequence is pure Tarantino—comic dialogue, loopy situations, sudden violence. But this scene is lifted from Elmore Leonard’s 1992 novel Rum Punch. And as much as Jackie Brown feels like a Tarantino film, the plot is faithfully Leonard’s. Tarantino wisely pulls entire sequences verbatim from Leonard’s pen, adding his own dialogue as stand-in for the novel’s expert descriptions of action and detail. Leonard is a master of character creation, gritty conversation, and delightfully convoluted situation. A perfect match for Tarantino’s first, and thus far only, according-to-Hoyle adaptation, and the director is respectful to his source.
But like all great directors, Tarantino is a compulsive who must pay tribute to his obsessions. Obsessions like:
That last thing got him in some pretty hot water with Spike Lee.
With a love of Blaxploitation etched in his DNA, Tarantino had to notice that Rum Punch has elements of the genre. There’s a tough main character dame who’s strong enough to fend for herself, a hood criminal with a bevy of women and minions to do his business, and one final, big score designed to extricate the criminal from the ghetto for good. Blaxploitation movies rarely had all three of those things at once—a perfect opportunity for Tarantino’s brand of genre homage and transcendence.
The only minor issue was that Leonard’s heroine, Jackie Burke, was White. Tarantino needed Foxy Brown. The solution was obvious.
This, for the uninitiated, is Pam Grier. It takes Rum Punch 39 pages to introduce Jackie to us. Jackie Brown takes maybe 39 seconds.
Quentin Tarantino was 10 years old when Pam Grier starred in Foxy Brown, a film whose most unsavory plot aspect (and its resulting vengeance) he lifted for Kill Bill: Volume One.
Here, he lifts Foxy’s last name, her movie’s title font and her portrayer. Grier was the queen of Blaxploitation, wielding a shotgun, razors in her ‘fro and a take no prisoners attitude that was simultaneously terrifying and sensual. Jack Hill, who directed her in Foxy Brown, Coffy and two other films, said that Pam Grier had “that something special that only she has. She has ‘it’.” Hill could get a witness from any fan, for we knew: Not only did Pam Grier have “it,” she could whip your ass with “it” as well.
It’s obvious Tarantino wants to show the Grier toughness he loves, but he has deeper intentions. He wants to bring out her softer side as well. In her 70’s output, her vulnerability is physical. She is always abused yet always avenged. Outside of movies like Bucktown or Greased Lightning, she was rarely afforded a typical love story. We’ll talk about Tarantino fixes that next time. For now, flight attendant and money carrier Jackie Brown has to think quick and plan that big score fast. Ordell has bailed her out for the same reason he sprung Beaumont. Michael Keaton’s Ray Nicolet is breathing down her neck to squeal on Ordell, and Ordell has other intentions for her neck. Robert Forster’s Max Cherry, Jackie’s soon-to-be love interest, plays an unwitting part in the scene that got fans of Pam out of their seats in the theater. Herewith, the tough side of Pam Grier.
Quentin and Pam’s Big Score, Part 2
Welcome to the seduction of Max Cherry, writer of 15,000 bonds, survivor of 57 years on the Earth, newcomer to 70’s soul music. Male. Obviously not blind. Bearing witness to Jackie Brown, looking refreshingly like a normal human being and pressing a different kind of gun to his bone. She renders him helpless with the clarion call of her partners in crime,
Quentin Tarantino relishes putting a gun in Pam Grier’s hands, throwing us back to the good old days of Nurse Coffy, Sheba Shayne and Friday Foster. Her genre reputation precedes her, and one can almost hear QT cackle as he merges Brian DePalma’s split-screen, Jack Hill’s dialogue and an overzealous sound man’s rendition of that “CLICK” that accompanies that gun aimed at Ordell Robbie’s favorite toy. But this commandeering of DePalma and Hill serves the drama—Elmore Leonard crafted the Ordell-Jackie pas de deux in his novel, Rum Punch, to get us here. It’s Max’s gun Jackie’s stolen, and its retrieval leads not only to Max’s seduction but also to some of the most poignant dialogue Tarantino has scripted. Notice how delicately the camera moves in on Grier’s profile. It’s almost as if we’re eavesdropping on Pam and Robert, not Jackie and Max.
Jackie needs an ally like Max because The Big Score, that Blaxploitation staple designed to get one out of the hustle, involves Jackie smuggling half a million dollars of Ordell’s money from Cabo San Lucas. She’ll do it under the nose of ATF agent Ray Nicolet, tricking him with a visible $50,000 that distracts Ray from a hidden $500,000. Max decides to help because he too wants to get out of his hustle. That, and because the Delfonics–pretty fucking persuasive.
Whom you trust is essential in any heist, and Ordell trusts his right hand man Louis. He and Louis were in the hoosegow together, and Ordell believes in honor amongst thieves, a common mistake amongst thieves. Additionally, Ordell has his bevy of women primed to do his bidding and, true to Blaxploitation form, ready to assist on The Big Score.
There’s aging Motown wannabe Simone, whose impressions of Diana Ross and Mary Wells hint that, though this pussy may be old, it’s real and it’s spectacular.
There’s Sheronda, country as a chicken coop, naïve as hell, and recipient of Ordell’s most hilarious putdown.
Then there’s Melanie, his “little Surfer Girl” whose excessive drug use disguises a truly cunning and vindictive mind. Of the dope use, Ordell tells her “that shit will rob you of your ambitions.” Melanie’s ambition is to rob Ordell of his money. So maybe the dope use is a good thing.
Ordell thinks this is his game, but “The Money Exchange,” the codename for The Big Score, is designed to favor Jackie Brown. He let her create it, he’s entrusting her to screw over the Feds, and he’s unaware of how deep her alliance with Max Cherry runs. It’s going to work, though, because Ordell thinks his scary disposition will keep his bitches in line and they will not—repeat will NOT—betray him.
The logistics of The Money Exchange are faithfully recreated from Dutch’s novel. But its execution is pure Tarantino. Cutting loose and succumbing to his love of time manipulation, QT presents the money swap from three characters’ perspectives: Jackie’s, Max’s, and the comic duo of DeNiro and Fonda’s Louis and Melanie. Each depiction focuses on its protagonist’s traits. Jackie is in control in hers, with a great little dialogue about an even greater little pantsuit. Louis and Melanie are antagonistic in theirs, culminating in a very violent Abbott and Costello routine involving a lost car. And Max’s version is cool, suspenseful and exciting, because he’s the one left holding the bag.
When Ordell and Max drive to the final showdown with Jackie, the film uses The Delfonics’ 1971 classic, “Didn’t I Blow Your Mind,” as an almost subliminal reassurance that our heroes will succeed. Jackson uses silence to great ominous effect here, a visual terror undercut by the lovely musical accompaniment from the car stereo. This is Jackie and Max’s song, and Jackie Brown is a romance, or as close to a romance as its director has ever been.
Rum Punch leaves its final scene ambiguous. Jackie Brown puts a bittersweet, old-fashioned finality to the proceedings, with the duo finally doing what we’ve been waiting all film for them to do.
As the final scene mirrors the first, we Blaxploitation fans revel in seeing our heroine once again prevail. We’ve been amused by Tarantino’s shorthand. And we’ve confirmed what we’ve known all along: A woman can only be tough 23 hours out of the day. That last hour, even the toughest chick needs to power down and meditate on her emotions.
A globetrotting computer programmer by trade and movie lover by hobby, Odie Henderson has contributed to Slant Magazine’s The House Next Door since 2006. Additionally, his work has appeared at Movies Without Pity (2008) and numerous other sites. He currently runs the blog Tales of Odienary Madness.