In Praise of Badass Super Mamas (Summer 2008)

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From the Summer 2008 issue of Ms. magazine:

Shades of the summer of 1973!

That was the season of the supermama: kickass Black women such as Pam 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 Black women 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.

When Ms. contributor Margaret Sloan wrote about these films in 1974, she reported how a young sister sitting behind her responded to a screening of Cleopatra Jones with, “Damn. That movie felt good.”

In fact, it was a rare treat to see a Black woman carrying an action movie rather than serving as sex object to a male action hero. The 1970s’ Blaxploitation genre—low-budget, ghetto-set, shoot-’em-up flicks like Shaft—usually afforded Black women secondary parts only as “hos” and sexy girlfriends. Those roles hearkened back to a racist-and-sexist Jezebel image of Black femininity: oversexed, phallus-loving hot mamas.

Even earlier, Hollywood had clung to the devoted-to-her-white-family, sexless image of Black womanhood, famously exemplified by Hattie McDaniel’s Mammy in Gone with the Wind.

In the 1960s, Hollywood added Mammy’s alter ego—the emasculating matriarchal image of a “bitchy” Black woman, along the lines of the nosy, domineering mother-in-law, Sapphire, in radio and TV’s Amos ‘n’ Andy—which these days has been appropriated with huge financial success by cross-dressing Black comedic actors Eddie Murphy (Norbit), Tyler Perry (Madea) and Martin Lawrence (Big Momma’s House).

It was a rare treat to see a Black woman carrying an action movie rather than serving as sex object to a male action hero.

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.      

The revolutionary potential of the supermama flicks were compromised, however, by the low-budget caliber of production, the insistent drugs-and-crime formula, and the oversexualization of women characters that defined blaxploitation.

Foxy Brown and Coffy sometimes had to disguise themselves as prostitutes, wielding their feminine power through sexual escapades with the bad guys.

Grier and Dobson—along with Gloria Hendry, who appeared in the summer-of-73’s Live and Let Die as the first African American woman to be romantically involved with James Bond—desired deeper roles, but nonetheless made the best out of the representations they were allowed within the genre.

Grier certainly wasn’t naive about the material: In a 1975 Ms. cover interview with Jamaica Kincaid, she unabashedly criticized American International Picture’s “tits and ass” and “give the niggers shit” movie formula.          

Despite problems with the representations of Black women, the supermama films made money at the box office. Yet, what Hendry once called “the [B]lack 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. Grier plays an aging, still-lovely Black woman who takes on the FBI and a ‘70s-styled hustler (played by Samuel L. Jackson), who are both trying to use her for their own ends. The film doesn’t copy Blaxploitation’s oversexualization and misogyny, but does temper the Black woman’s triumph by forcing Jackie to manipulate her heterosexual appeal in order to save herself.                                                     

Pam Grier in Jackie Brown, 1997. (Miramax Films / Everett Collection)

Tough women have also been turning up on TV in this new century—in shows such as Alias, Heroes and Lost—but while they borrow from the ‘70s action vibe, Black women have been almost entirely left out of the genre. The international intrigue-oriented missions of these white heroes also lack the real-world community ties that characterized Coffy’s and Cleopatra’s antidrug crusades. They retain, however, some of Blaxploitation’s seedier tropes, as when protagonists such as Sydney (Jennifer Garner) in Alias become masters of feminine disguises, using their sex appeal to infiltrate the bad guys’ lairs.

One can’t help but feel nostalgia for the short-lived effort to bring supermama Blaxploitation to TV in 1974, Get Christie Love, in which Black actor Teresa Graves played a tough cop who slapped on the handcuffs with her catchphrase, “You’re under arrest, Sugah!”

At the movies in recent years, Black women continue to be underrepresented among the latest kick-butt heroes. When Drew Barrymore, Lucy Liu and Cameron Diaz brought Charlie’s Angels into the 21st century, early plans for a Black Angel died. Black women have attained secondary roles in occasional thrillers, leather-suited and kicking a little ass, as Jada Pinkett Smith did in The Matrix Revolutions. But male-dominated action films such as Bad Boys II and Mission Impossible II featured Black women only as peripheral pretty sidekicks and girlfriends. 

Jada Pinkett Smith as Niobe in The Matrix. (Warner Bros.)

The roster of action films for the summer of 2008 isn’t offering much in the way of a supermama rebirth.

Yet my hope for new supermamas survives, especially when I look at that poster of Dobson, who passed away in fall 2006. Cleopatra Jones remains alive and in color, reminding Hollywood and me that the screen and action cinema not only have room for Black women, but need them. Action film’s still a masculine arena, but it’s the ultimate fantasy space: Ordinary humans and super-beings alike can save the world and stall corruption. 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 would not be a neat replica of Foxy or Cleopatra because, like her Blaxploitation sister-kin, she would be something we’ve not quite seen before. 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. 

Up next:

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Professor Stephane Dunn, PhD, MA, MFA (University of Notre Dame) is the author of Baad Bitches & Sassy Supermamas: Black Power Action Films (2008), Chicago ’66 (2020 Finish Line/Tirota Social Impact Screenplay winner) & the forthcoming novel Snitchers (2022). She is a co-founder of the Cinema, Television & Emerging Media Studies (CTEMS) major at Morehouse College. Her writing has appeared in a number of edited books and other publications, including The Chronicle of Higher Education,, The Atlantic, Vogue, TheRoot, Ebony, and Ms., among others.