|FEATURES | summer 2008
Last season on Showtime’s The L Word, the character of Kit—played by the iconic Pam Grier—decided to get a gun. Never one for violence, Kit was driven to revenge after two unscrupulous women stole her business. So, dressed in a white trench coat, gun in her pocket, Kit returned to her former establishment to take aim at her nemeses …
Shades of the summer of 1973!
That was the season of the supermama: kickass black women such as Grier and Tamara Dobson, who starred in big-screen “blaxploitation” action films. Grier played Coffy, a working-class, gun-wielding nurse who takes vigilante justice against drug dealers, pimps and mobsters. Dobson played Cleopatra Jones, a U.S. special agent fighting drug lords with martial-arts moves and her gun.
I’ve still got a poster in my bedroom of 6-foot-2-inch Dobson in her Cleopatra Jones garb, rocking her ‘fro, wearing a short rabbit-fur jacket and red-striped bell-bottoms, with an Uzi slung over one shoulder. For a black woman like me, Cleopatra and Coffy were fantasies come true: beautiful, tough blackwomen tackling real-life problems such as racism, economic oppression and abusive men without relying on anyone but themselves.
Grier herself has often identified her characters in Coffy and the following year’s sexy-but-revenge-minded Foxy Brown (“the meanest chick in town”) as signs of the burgeoning feminist movement. They were women who didn’t accept victimization, and would rather fight than surrender. And Dobson’s Cleopatra even took on a greater mission beyond personal empowerment: She wanted to rid the world of drugs, which were causing destruction in the sort of neighborhoods where she grew up. While Cleopatra Jones, Coffy and Foxy Brown played up the feminist-era persona of a bold modern woman who refused to stay in her place, the characters’ Afro hairdos and funky outfits also referenced the Afrocentrism of the concurrent Black Power movement. Indeed, the villains were often ego-tripping white women.
Despite problems with the representations of black women, the supermama films made money at the box office. Yet, what Hendry once called “the black renaissance,” with its rare women heroes, would disappear within just a few years amid the controversy over the black stereotypes (pimps, drug users) celebrated by blaxploitation.
But the cultural nostalgia for blaxploitation has never really died. The hype surged again in the ‘90s as hip-hop music videos recycled ‘70s pop culture. One of hip-hop’s top women rappers took on the name Foxy Brown. And in the 1996 film Set It Off, four black women who need cash set out to rob banks, led by super-baadasssss Queen Latifah in the role of Cleopatra (!) Sims. Then came the supermama’s fullest resurrection, in director Quentin Tarantino’s 1997 blaxploitation-esque Jackie Brown—starring none other than Pam Grier herself.
Watered-down Foxy and Cleopatra imitations have also become staples in a bevy of comedies. Indeed, the ‘60s-spy-show and blaxploitation spoof Austin Powers in Goldmember featured Beyonce as “Foxxy Cleopatra,” lifting the names, fashions and sexiness but leaving out the supermamas’ toughness and political motivation. But two recent action blockbusters that featured black women characters—Pirates of the Caribbean 3 and X-Men: The Last Stand—were particularly disappointing. Naomie Harris played Calypso in Pirates—goddess, damned lover and ultimate darkfemme fatale—but unfortunately Calypso paralleled that scary image of the “fecund” primitive African woman in Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novel Heart of Darkness. And in X-Men, Halle Berry wasn’t given a chance to translate more of the power and dignity of weather-changing Storm from the comic-book version to film. But the fact that Berry’s been able to play two action heroes, Catwoman and Storm, and reportedly is interested in remaking Foxy Brown, suggests that she, too, yearns for the supermama.
Yet my hope for new supermamas survives, especially when I look at that poster of Dobson, who passed away last fall. Cleopatra and Coffy and Foxy fought against systems that beat up on everyday folk. Imagine what they would do in the 21st century.
Today’s supermama wouldn’t necessarily sling Uzis or wear prostitute disguises, but she could still kick ass with her street smarts or corporate savvy. She would not wait for permission to stop political corruption or environmental genocide or police brutality. She could be a mom, a daughter, a working-class woman or a big-shot career woman. She would rarely see violence as the solution to problems—after all, Grier’s character Kit on The L Word did not pull the trigger. No matter what, today’s supermama would be about a mission bigger than just her baadasssss self.
The full text of this article appears in the Summer issue of Ms. magazine, available on newsstands or by joining the Ms. community at www.msmagazine.com.
STEPHANE DUNN is an assistant professor at MorehouseCollege and author of “Baad Bitches” and Sassy Supermamas: Black Power Action Films (University of Illinois Press, 2008).